New authors love short stories… and Steve Amsterdam is no exception. His debut collection follows the life of a boy who grows to adulthood through the course of 9 episodic stories. The setting is an uncertain dystopian future.
The stories in Things We Didn’t See Coming are all narrated in the first person (like everything else between two covers these days). Amsterdam is at his best in the first two and the last. “What We Know Now” is about a young boy being rushed to his grandparents’ country home in preparation for a Y2K event. The second story “The Theft That Got Me Here” has the same boy, now a juvenile delinquent, fleeing the city with his grandparents on a Bonnie & Clyde type adventure. The final, in my mind the best, has our hero detour his end-of-life tour group for a last visit to his father (“Best Medicine”). These three stories are each complete and self-contained. The characters have clear motivations. The individual plots proceed to logical conclusions. And Amsterdam leaves just the right amount unsaid, while still providing resolution at the end. The writing, particularly in “Best Medicine”, is lovely and evocative.
The other six stories are much less successful in my opinion, making promises they fail to delivery on. Think of each story as a flash. In the first story the central character is about 12. In the next flash he is in his mid- to late teens. Next his 20’s. By the last story he’s 40 years old. Between each story/flash are huge gaps in the narrative. There’s a LOT of missing information… most story lines are left dangling. And because, as before mentioned, Amsterdam is a writer who doesn’t spell everything out (something I usually like) the result is that most of the stories in the collection feel incomplete. It’s frustrating.
As for the writing style, it is strictly no frills – like generic packaging in a supermarket – with rare moments of brightness. All the stories are written in the kind of clean, straightforward prose that often works in an author’s favor, but (for the most part) doesn’t here. The overall effect is rmarkedly lackluster.
In my experience an author must choose whether to construct a complicated plot or focus on language. The greats do both. Amsterdam does neither. Even what I believe to be the most original thing about the book, its approach to an apocalyptic future, is recycled in that it has been done better by someone else. Signs, my favorite M. Night Shyamalan film, is about an alien invasion from the perspective of an ordinary family. Their knowledge of what is occurring is limited and they’re only goal is to survive. These people are not heroes saving the world, yet they still battle the aliens (and their own personal demons) within a perfectly constructed microcosm.
Amsterdam’s hero grows up to be, not Mad Max, but a petty thief and eventually… wait for it…a government employee. The most action packed confrontation in Things We Didn’t See Coming happens when a dying vagrant wanders into the hero’s camp and taunts him – while he sits in a tree to avoid infection. While this perspective may be unorthodox, it just doesn’t make for much dramatic tension. To keep a reader’s interest something exciting has to happen eventually. Even the unexplained apocalypse of the story becomes nothing more than a background against which this character’s uneventful life plays out.
My final verdict? I can’t completely bring myself to dismiss the Things We Didn’t See Coming. Because…and here’s the rub… what if Amsterdam, Shyamalan, and even T.S. Eliot, have the right of it? That (unless some zombies show up) the end of the world will be remarkably mundane? Tedious, even. Scrounging for food and water, avoiding disease and infection. Hustling and stealing and lying in order to survive. It’d be a let down, but rings true. Ultimately, I’m ambiguous – unsure if Things We Didn’t See Coming chooses the best way to tell that particular story. Amsterdam has succeeded in making the end of the world banal. And while he may someday have the satisfaction of being proven right, it isn’t an adventure I see most readers enthusiastically signing on for.
Publisher: New York, Pantheon Books (2009)
ISBN: 978 0 307 37850 7