Things We Didn’t See Coming

Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn't See Coming
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Things We Didn’t See Coming

Steven Amsterdam

It’s the anxious eve of the millennium. The car is packed tocapacity, and as midnight approaches, a family flees the city ina fit of panic and paranoid, conflicting emotions. The ensuing journey spans decades and offers asharp-eyed perspective on a hardscrabble future, as a boyjettisons his family and all other ties in order to survive as ajourneyman in an uncertain landscape. By turns led by love,larceny, and a new sexual order, he must avoid capture andimprisonment, starvation, pandemic, and some particularlybad weather. In Things We Didn’t See Coming, Steven Amsterdamlinks together nine luminous narratives through the mindof one peripatetic and resourceful wanderer who always hasone eye on the exit door and the other on a future that shiftsmore drastically and more often than anyone would like toimagine. I’ll get fired. No one will know. Central will find out. Anything named Central doesn’t even know what you looklike. I do, and I’m watching you to see that you make the right decisionhere. He waved us through.


Who would have seen coming - so soon after the super-nova that was Nam Le in the Australian literary firmament in 2008 - that already in early 09 we would be blessed with another debut of the most sublime conception and tender execution?!

When I was given the opportunity of reading Things We Didn’t See Coming in manuscript form last year, it was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my reading life. Fittingly I think for the extraordinary journey that is this book, the publisher has chosen not to give anything away in its packaging. Amsterdam, we are informed, is “a writer living in Melbourne”; there is no descriptive blurb on the back cover, nor is there a table of contents for anyone assuming that it is a short-story collection (a novel in linked stories sums it up better).

The striking cover design however provides one hint at least to the tempero-spatial experience which is to come, namely nine narratives set in an unspecified geographical space and at uncertain time intervals in our near future. But the initial disorientation recedes when you soon realise that the (unnamed) male character of the book appears across all the stories, and that we follow him in chronological time.

Already that feels like I’m giving too much away - and to describe the situations our hero finds himself in is near impossible - so fully formed are they as imaginative constructs (and what ripper openings, in medias res, each story has!). Common though to most of the stories is that our hero is employed by the ruling authorities of the day in various roles for the “public good”, as society is reorganised in the face of the massive environmental and climactic changes that seem to have befallen the planet. It is a glimpse of a McCarthyesque fallen world, with all the deformations that entails - physical, mental, spiritual, and moral - but also shows the gift of what we can give to one another in our relationships, as not least the final chapter (where our hero realises the “best medicine”) so movingly illustrates.

Earlier he imagines “the history of the world collapsed into a minute, the sum total of every halfway ‘I love you’ ever spoken”. Amsterdam’s remarkable achievement with this book is - in the face of the ever more instrumentalized social world we inhabit - to envision just such a ‘hope against hope’ for our times. A quite simply astounding book, and surely destined to become a contemporary classic!

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