Fiction – paperback; Sleepers Publishing; 174 pages; 2009.
Serendipity can work in strange and unusual ways. Having just read H.M. Brown’s dystopian Red Queen, which is set in Australia, I picked up Steven Amsterdam’s award-winning Things We Didn’t See Coming to find it, too, is dystopian fiction.
Amsterdam is a Melbourne-based writer, although the story does not appear to be set in Australia. While the location is never specified, it “feels” North American. This isn’t particularly surprising given that Amsterdam, according to his website, was “born and raised by lifelong New Yorkers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a rent-controlled apartment”.
What is surprising is that this collection of short stories, set in an apocalyptic world, works so brilliantly. While each of the nine stories can be read as stand alone pieces of fiction, taken as a whole they build into a rather wonderful narrative that spans some 30 years and sees the main character, a petty thief, survive the wrath of the millennium bug (remember that?), fire, flood and desperate food shortages, among other disasters.
And despite the dark, sometimes depressing, worlds presented here, the books feels wonderfully alive and fresh and new. This isn’t so much about people dying (although clearly lots of people do die when there’s been an apocalypse), but about the canny, sometimes immoral, methods the survivors adopt to forge on in a world wracked by environmental changes, economic collapse and societal breakdown. It has the potential to be a cold, brutal and violent book, but instead it’s a heady mix of tenderness, sexiness, hopefulness and wonder.
Amsterdam is a talented story-teller, with a sharp eye for detail and a canny ear for dialogue. But it’s his tremendous imagination that makes this book work. Quick thumbnail portraits take us into new and forbidding territory, but he never over-explains, never wastes words on a complicated back story, just thrusts us right into the action from the word go. Here’s an example, taken from the second story in the collection, Dry Land, which immediately conveys a world in which it never stops raining:
I was never trained to travel in these long downpours and I’m tired of the damp. But I’ve got a lot of autonomy. I’m supposed to cover the low areas, look for the shaky light of candles burning in dark houses and evacuate whoever’s still thinking the sky’s about to clear. Land Management sends me in to protect them from starvation and flooding. Also, my job is to make sure no one gets hurt when the animals on the land nearby finally get so desperate that they stampede through. There’s some water-logged cattle one county away that are trapped by a forest and probably close to busting out. They’ll either die or find the strength to cross the highway and come through here. I’m clearing people so the animals can push through the suburbs and muddy farms to find higher ground.
While there’s no doubt that Amsterdam has a unique voice, there are shades of Chuck Palahniuk here, with a little dash of Stephen King and even some David Vann thrown in for good measure. Oh, and just a smidgen of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Things We Didn’t See Coming won the 2009 Age Book of the Year Award for Fiction. It’s currently only available in Australia, but will be published by Pantheon in the USA next month and in the UK by Harvill Secker in August. French and Dutch editions will follow in 2011. Do keep your eye out for it.