Tuesday, 8 March 2011

19/111 - Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

This is one of the books I picked up from the lovely people at Vintage when I was doing work experience there. It appealed to me first of all because of the title. Fucking awesome title. It’s potentially a good title for my life. I have several books with titles that appear as though they could be heading up a list, so I guess it’s a device that I dig right now. Others of mine include: True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies and And This Is True by Emily Mackie. It’s also post-apocalyptic, which earns massive points for me, too.

This tale is set in an alternate future where the Y2K bug really did take hold and led to the collapse of society. Told through a series of vignettes, rather than a cohesive narrative, the narrator goes from a young boy to a middle-aged man, with gaps of several years between each chapter, and the reader is offered a brief snapshot of what course his life is taking. Throughout the vignettes, we are introduced to different people he encounters such as his parents, his girlfriend Margo and a mysterious hyper-sexual employer, Juliet.

The narrator, who remains un-named (unless I missed it) muddles and scrambles his way through life from day to day, year to year, with no real plan. Sometimes he talks his way into situations or ends up stealing in order to survive. Lots of thriftiness in this novel. His life seems to be a series of near-misses with both dangerous situations and with potential relationships. There is also an underlying exploration into the blurry lines between right and wrong. Our protagonist is fairly amoral as a person, and does what he needs to in order to survive, but he is not without mercy or kindness sometimes. Everyone he encounters also seems to operate in this way, and maybe there is no place for right or wrong in this new world.

Steven Amsterdam is sparse with his words and descriptions, which I enjoyed. I like to imagine what has occurred to cause this apocalypse, and the few details he does give away are enough to tell you that things are bad. Natural disasters and cancers blaze their way across the country, and stability as we know it appears to be a thing of the past. I usually prefer more detail with my post-apocalyptic scenarios, but this was executed very well.

At one point the narrator sits down to watch Robocop and laughs heartily at all the wrong predictions for the future, which is interesting. Amsterdam’s predictions for his potential future are much more realistic and pretty chilling. His world is one where people find it difficult or impossible to put down roots, as they’ll simply have to move on again. Relationships, too, are an outmoded form of cohesion – the narrator and his girlfriend can only sign an affirmation of their relationship once every eighteen months; no more lifetime marriage contracts.

His vision of the future is unsettling and bleak. It is a world that I wouldn’t want to inhabit, and maybe that’s the reason I came away from this feeling a little unsatisfied. His final chapter includes a reunion with his father, which at first seemed hopeful, but now I’m not so sure. That's all I have to say about this one for now. Maybe shouldn't have read the last fifty pages with sleeping pills in my system, but it seemed appropriate, somehow.

Next up: Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton

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