Book Review: Things We Didn’t See Coming – Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a trap. In at least one paperback form, it does not have a blurb, just pull quotes. It is not until you open it and get a few stories in that you realise that they are all connected – and only then, if you’re me, because three consecutive stories featured a character called Margo. One can’t be blamed for not coming to this realisation sooner: Things We Didn’t See Coming has the appearance of a collection of short stories, and the majority of them, while post-apocalyptic, appear to deal with apocalypses of different varieties and root causes. The narrator is never named. Each apocalypse is presented without much in the way of context, and it does not need it. But, if you really are allergic to short stories, you may feel free to treat Things We Didn’t See Coming as a novel with large time gaps between chapters.

Beginning on the eve of something that may well be Y2K, Things We Didn’t See Coming follows its nameless protagonist across a series of post-apocalyptic landscapes at different stages of life. In one story, the rain is without end; in another, a deadly epidemic leads to an ethical dilemma; later still, society waits for the rains to return; a recurring theme in many is that most dystopian element of a post-apocalypse: bureaucracy and the corruption thereof. The truest villain after the world is over always is and forever shall be red tape.

Even if you’re incapable of making the connection between stories – and it really does come down to the prism through which you have been presented Things We Didn’t See Coming – it is hard to deny that Amsterdam is a world builder, in an almost literal sense. While the first chapter, before anything fantastical happens, is a practically boilerplate literary short story – we certainly don’t need the Y2K to contextualise anything – the rest show a gift for invention and reinvention that speaks to a man who, for the most part, knows what he’s doing.

From a nostalgia-eroding family road trip to a wine scavenger hunt, Amsterdam thrusts his protagonist into a variety of likely enough situations and shows how he copes, or doesn’t, with them. Because they’re so episodic rather than a cohesive novel, some of them are stronger than others. Of the Margo triptych, the middle piece is the strongest even as it deals with the darkest and most depressing of the narrator’s emotions.

As an interconnected piece, Things We Didn’t See Coming doesn’t always mesh, and despite all of the upheavals experienced by society in the decades that it spans, and despite his nomadic lifestyle in the undefined geography of the post-apocalyptic landscape, the narrator manages to maintain several anchor points, including his father; society broke down, but it got back together again as an uglier version of itself with bizarre sexual morés. Things We Didn’t See Coming is imperfect if you approach it as a complete work of fiction, but as a broader sampling of post-apocalyptica it’s exemplary.

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