Things We Didn’t See Coming

LET ME BEGIN by saying I make my living teaching creative writing, teaching young people to observe and honor the world around them and to be rigorous with their every utterance. It is work I deeply love, for in this consumerist culture of ours it is truly something to see some twenty college students — cell phones silent a moment—tumble into the real world through words.

All that said, I must admit I’m getting tired of vampire stories. And anything with aliens. Or wizards. Or elves. Or wizards fighting elves, a pack of slobbering aliens waiting to take on the winner. And I have to say I’ve more than had my fill of burnt-world, we-need-a-hero dystopian visions, which is why I approached Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, described on the book jacket as “nine connected stories set in a not-too-distant dystopian future,” with such weary trepidation.

But I loved this book. For so many reasons. First, the writing is spare, effective, and, when it needs to be, even stunning. Second, Amsterdam wisely stays away from lengthy exposition; rather, he just tosses us into the environmentally and socially devastated worlds of these stories. Further, the characters we encounter in these narratives — our unnamed, questing protagonist; a drunken woman done up in an old gown squatting in an abandoned vacation home, the forever rains pouring down around her; a host of terminally ill vacationers, cancers abloom across their skins, carrying their even sicker tour guide up the mountain in their arms — feel alive and whole.

And finally, what matters most here is that while set in some imagined world, these stories are talking about our world, about drugs and journeys, bureaucracy and politics and culture, lovers and cities and mothers, fathers and sons. The first story in the collection ends with the nine-year-old narrator trying to convince his father, whose end-times fears have pushed him perilously close to a psychic breakdown, that they’ll be okay: “The flashlight sticking out of the ground is flickering more now. I wonder if that’s the only light that’s going to go out tonight. I want to convince him to come back to the house so we don’t end up out here in the dark in the cold. . . . I say what Grandpa likes to say: ‘Everything will be fine until it’s not. Then we can worry.’ He doesn’t seem to hear it. He just keeps rocking, telling me he’s sorry and hugging me as tight as he can to hold the world still.”

And the last story sees the narrator, middle-aged and sick down to his bones, brought back to his off-the-grid, shamanistic father: “He inhales deeply, summoning his powers. His hands come slowly down, working from my forehead to my chin and back again, pressing a current of air tight between us. Slowly, he lowers his fingertips nearer my skin till I can feel their heat on my cheeks and then, without a sound, without the slightest incantation, he closes my eyes.”

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a book I needed to read. It demonstrates so powerfully how the imagined, when rigorously envisioned and crafted, can indeed bring us back to the real. I know I’ll be passing it on to my students.