Excerpted from Things We Didn't See Coming by Steven Amsterdam. Copyright © 2010 by Steven Amsterdam. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: What are THINGS WE DIDN’T SEE COMING?
A collection that becomes a life—stories that take the narrator, at first a young boy on the eve of this millennium, forward into a wild assortment of futures. Each one is set only a few years after the one before, but his struggles evolve fast so the terrain of each story keeps changing.
Q: Is this how you see the world?
Yes. It’s easy for me to imagine that the same man would climb up a tree to avoid a pandemic; get a job giving grants to disaster refugees; live in a three-way relationship with his girlfriend and a senator; provide adventure tours for the terminally ill . . . . Why not?
Q: So life is going to be difficult. We’ve seen a few dystopian books lately.
I don’t think of THINGS WE DIDN’T SEE COMING as fully dystopian because there are utopian moments in there. And I wouldn’t even call it speculative because I’m not offering the stories up as a prediction. Each one came up as a different riff on the stuff we hope for, the stuff we worry about. So he runs through a gauntlet of experiences—some ecstatic, some decidedly less so.
Q: In an Op-Ed for The Age (9/29/09), you wrote: “The recent H1N1 pandemic offered a tidy illustration of disproportionate panic. Of course, the flu could have become more deadly, but it didn’t and hasn’t (so far). Or, to cite a safer example, a Times writer in 1894 was alarmed by the rising number of horses being used in London and calculated that by 1944 every street would be under nine feet of manure. What was the big issue for London streets in 1944? Exactly.” Do we worry about the future too much?
The truly Zen would gently suggest that any amount is too much. I try to be honest though: worrying tickles some of my pleasure receptors. How many times have I clicked on a link about the Ebola virus spreading? Writing this book was a bit of an exorcism of some of those fears—but I think the stories (and books set in the future, in general) say more about where we are now than where we are going. I was raised by some first-class worriers and don’t imagine I’ll ever fully be free of it myself, but my work as a nurse has forced me to go from being fearful and voyeuristic about panic to proactive: If the patient is bleeding, you can’t sit there worrying that the patient is going to die, you do something. In the stories, he does what he has to do to survive.
Q: So is the book hopeful?
It depends whom you ask. The responses I’ve gotten make me think it’s a bit of a Rorschach test.
Q: There’s a whole lot of love for you in Australia. The reviews ranged from glowing to gushing. Then, the major paper there, The Age, chose THINGS WE DIDN’T SEE COMING as their book of the year. Then, you were chosen as one of Melbourne's most influential people of 2009. How does it all feel?
Great, of course. Still, it’s ironic that I grew up in New York City with a literary agent for a mother, spent ten years working in publishing, making a wide range of friends and contacts, but had to come to another hemisphere and a tiny publisher in a town where I have no connections to get it together to finish a book and find literary success. I’ll take it. I’ve been writing since the seventh grade, so I don’t feel that I’ve exactly cheated anyone to get the praise. It seems like a solid chorus of confirmation as I go forward.
Q: Why did you choose not to name your narrator?
The first story I wrote was about this boy with his grandparents, escaping the city under lockdown, going on a bit of a crime spree. His grandparents had all these terms of endearment for him. So there was no need for a name. As the other stories came, it seemed like adding a name would have been an afterthought, too conscious. I could have wasted whole afternoons deciding between Nicholas and Nick and Nico. Clearly there would have been a difference, but it wouldn’t have felt organic at that point. I’m firmly in favor of leaving gaps for the reader to fill. How often do you think of your own name and really relate it to who you are? It didn’t seem necessary.
Q: This is your first published book and it’s in the first person, so is there a certain amount of autobiography here?
I do consider myself, like the narrator, something of an artful dodger, though not quite to the same exciting extent. It goes back to my Life is Busy thesis. Some random moments: After college, I’m a copywriter in Tokyo, hiding under my desk as the building shakes during an earthquake. While working as a producer’s assistant in LA, the Rodney King verdict comes down and I watch my supermarket get looted and then burnt down. Just after September 11, I’m a graphic designer and the building I work in is evacuated twice a day because of bomb threats. Two years later I’m working as a pastry chef at a small resort on an island in Lake Michigan, trying to save the ice cream I’ve just made from melting during a power outage after a storm. Living in Melbourne last year, right after a day of deadly bushfires, I’m working in the psychiatric ward, talking to people traumatized by what had happened. Looking back, I understand how I got from one point to the next. Likewise from an historical angle, we can see how plate tectonics, racial inequality, terrorism, blackouts, and climate change can operate. But were any of these changes predictable? I doubt it. As likely as anything else, I may next find myself being elected the president of an island nation, just as a tsunami burps up from the sea floor. Looking back, it will all make sense.
Q: Who are your literary influences?
Vladimir Nabokov, for many things, starting with this description of a dead man, from Lolita: “ . . . a quarter of his face gone, and two flies beside themselves with a dawning sense of unbelievable luck." José Saramago. for making the breakdown of a society completely recognizable in Blindness. Charlotte Bronte, for every last bit of suspense and satisfaction in Jane Eyre. Lillian Hellman, for being such a switched on (if, unreliable) narrator of her life. James Cain, for always keeping his characters aware of who owes who a bottle of Scotch, how far away the blonde’s husband has to be so there’ll be enough time to steal a kiss, and what happened to the knife that was sitting there on the table five minutes ago. And many others.
Q: Which way is forward?
I’m staying in Melbourne for now. It loves me, I love it. I have my partner, my job—I’ll be working as a palliative care nurse as well as a psychiatric nurse this year—and two chickens. In Australia, the book is leading me to speaking engagements and teaching workshops at libraries, literary festivals, and schools, all of which are new and interesting ways for me to engage with the reader. And because of the socialist tendencies of the country, these gigs pay, which isn’t bad. So I’m following all of these trails. Somehow I’ve got all of that going on and I’m still carving out time to work on my next book, which is about, among other things, special powers.
1. Each chapter involves a different kind of disaster or milestone of decline. How far into the future do the different chapters feel and why? Which events or societal shifts seem possible?
2. The only chapter set in the past, “What We Know Now” takes place on the eve of Y2K, with the narrator’s father panicking about the grid collapsing. How does this starting point—about a disaster that didn’t happen—change your reading of the apocalyptic changes that come in later chapters?
3. Things We Didn’t See Coming has an unusual structure. Each chapter is set at least three years apart. Most conclude with the narrator finding himself in uncertain territory, with issues that seem to be resolved by the start of the next chapter. Are these linked short stories or is it a discontinuous narrative? How do the chronological gaps between the chapters shape your reading of the narrator’s life? What questions do they leave unanswered?
4. The Guardian wrote “Amsterdam’s tone is refreshingly unapocalyptic.” What sort of counterpoint does the narrator’s wry outlook provide to the severity of the setting?
5. Neither the narrator nor the book’s terrain is ever specifically named. What does having an unnamed narrator do for a story like this? Where is this story set? Why?
6. While watching Robocop, the narrator comments, “the futuristic stuff is interesting because they got everything so wrong.” (p. 122) Given that Things We Didn’t See Coming is mostly set in the future, how does his comment relate? Does the book feel like a predictive text?
7. Recent novels that take place in dystopian settings, including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, similarly portray worlds of deprivation and social breakdown. In what way is Things We Didn’t See Coming different from other contemporary books about the future?
8. “Land Management looks the other way as long as we clear out the stragglers. They keep us on horses to prevent us from carrying away too much of the take. They say it saves on fuel, but the way it is now they’ve got to provide me as well as my horse with enough meds to stay functional. A jeep would be cheaper and faster.” (p. 50) “I had just started in Verification, [Margo] had finished training to work in Grief, but both of us were helping out Rescue.” (p. 95) Despite the continual chaos, government control and bureaucracy is evident throughout much of Things We Didn’t See Coming. What aspects of its presence seem familiar? As the narrator works in several different government roles over the course of the book, how does his relationship to the system change?
9. Do the narrator and Margo have a “Chemical Basis for Love” (p. 99)? Is a “practical union” (p. 111) a good solution for them?
10. Health plays a significant role in the book. Illness impacts the grandmother, the narrator, as well as his tour group (“My niche is the last-hurrah set, folks with at least two major cancers or a primary ailment, but still sporty enough to manage a little adventure.”) (p. 184). To what extent does it inform the decisions he makes?
11. It is sometimes said that inside every dystopian novel is a utopian novel trying to get out. If this is true, and they are two sides of one idea, why might dystopian novels be more prevalent at present? Several reviewers have spoken of a sense of hope throughout Things We Didn’t See Coming. Where do you find it?
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