Reviews: A

Review: “Things We Didn’t See Coming” by Steven Amsterdam [2009]

I rarely read novels set in a dystopian future with the only other I can remember being George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I find many inaccessible and, quite frankly, I’m not all too interested in reading about bleak futures. We’ll get there eventually. There’s no need to rush it forward. 🙂

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a series of vignettes set in the not too distant future. We follow an anonymous male from childhood where the world as we know it is on the brink of some catastrophic collapse on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day. This is not dissimilar from all the hype that surrounded the Y2K bug when everybody thought that everything would collapse due to computers being unable to recognise the year 2000. The narrator’s father packs up the family and heads to the relative safety of the country at the boy’s grandparent’s property. The boy’s father warns and apologises for the bleak future the boy is facing.

We are arrogant, stupid – we lack humility in the face of centuries and centuries of time before us. What we call knowledge, what you learn in school about fossils and dinosaurs, it’s all hunches. What we know now is that we didn’t think enough. We didn’t worry about the right things.

The future is a hospital, packed with sick people, packed with hurt people, people on stretchers in the halls, and suddenly the lights go out, the water shuts off, and you know in your heart that they’re never coming back on. That’s the future. – p. 22

We follow the boy through to the future as he grows up. As a teenager, it is clear the boy has lost his innocence, being a small time thief, and living in a fractured world. There is deep division between the city and country communities, both with advantages and disadvantages such as medicine and food. The boy’s parents have disappeared and he is being looked after, or rather looks after, his grandparents and attempts to escape back out into the country.

In another flash, the boy is grown up and working as a government official. The weather is a constant downpour of unrelenting rain and food is extremely scarce. Bark, rats and cushion stuffing make up some meals. Struggle for survival and struggles against the government officials is on-going for those who are still independent. Strange diseases are rife and part of the boy’s bargain for working as a government official is that he gets medicine.

In further flashes, the environment stabilises somewhat although disease is still prevalent. The boy experiences love but loses her somewhere along the line. At one stage, he works as a speech writer while embroiled in a menage-a-trois with his girlfriend and the politician he works for. Children and medication are particular scarce although medical treatment is readily available for those who have the right amount of money. Sound familiar?

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a very accessible and rather sad read. It shows the possible, and not so unrecognisable, future and leads us from our current environment into what might be. While the novel appears in a series of vignettes, this works especially well as we follow the boy from an innocent and recognisable childhood to a future filled with sickness and corruption. The ideas of our heavy reliance on industrialisation and unsustainable mass consumption, health care, heavy medication of the human body and climate and environmental change are some of the issues that underlies the stories.

You’ll have a clean slate, a world of opportunity, you’ll never look back. But nothing heals because, if you lose everything once, running becomes part of you and you’re always looking back. – p. 91

Review: “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga [2009]

‘ “You were looking for the key for years/But the door was always open!”‘ – p.253.

In a long letter to the Premiere of China, Wen Jiabao, a self-proclaimed entrepreneur from Bangalore, Balram Halwai, begins his letter upon hearing that the Premiere would like to meet some ‘real’ people in India during his visit. The letter/autobiography details Balram’s childhood in the backwater village of Laxmangarh where its residents lived in poverty and where their future seemed bleak at the very best. Balram’s father instills hope in him that things may change because he was the special son, the son that will finally break the cycle of poverty. Taken out of school soon after his father dies of Tuberculosis (five years of education was more than enough, according to his grandmother) and forced to work in a teashop, Balram finally gets his break when he takes driving lessons. He successfully gains employment as a driver/servant to one of Laxmangarh’s ruling family’s younger son who had just returned from New York and later moves to the bright lights of Delhi with them.

Adiga paints a stark picture of a modern day India filled with corruption, unbreakable cycles of poverty and the dissolvement of the hard won democracy that Gandhi and Nehru stood for. The police, public servants and politicians are all involved in bribery. Poor villages, such as Laxmangarh, and slums have their right to vote sold to politicians by the ruling landlords. Adiga also points his finger, curiously, at Indians like Ashok, the son who had returned from New York, who fly in and criticise the way of things, the corruption and poverty and yet who also cannot bear to give up their luxury lifestyle bought by bribes. The letter is written in the wee hours of the morning over seven nights, no doubt referring to the days it took for the Christian God to create the new world. In this case, it refers to how Balram eventually created his new world.

The writing is wonderful and lively and the story engrossing and stimulating. It’s an amazing achievement for a first time novelist but I cannot say if it is deserving as the winner of the Booker prize.

Review: “The Rachel Papers” by Martin Amis

My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me. It’s such a rangy, well-travelled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these. – p.7

This is our first impression of the novel’s protagonist and he is an egotistical, full-headed and precocious nineteen year old. The novel is set on the eve of Charles’ twentieth birthday as he goes through his numerous files that he keeps on family and friends. The Rachel papers recounts his mission to sleep with an older woman, Rachel, before his twentieth birthday, before he leaves the turmoils of adolescence behind and is pulled over the arbitrary line into adulthood. There are family issues, particularly unresolved tensions between himself and his father, and Charles deals with this by writing long letters of accusations to his father entitled, ‘Letters to my Father’. The old halls of Oxford also beckons as he prepares to sit its entrance exam. Then there is the sex. Paragraphs and paragraphs devoted to sex, urges and bodily functions are recalled in far greater details than I care to know. One section goes for over three pages.

Reading this, I had the feeling that this contained an autobiographical aspect as Amis is the prodigal son of Kingsley Amis with big shoes to fill. The writing is passionate and intense but it was somewhat difficult to get involved in the story. Charles is not very likeable and nor is he meant to be. Readers are supposed to scoff and laugh at him but I found that many of his ‘funny’ comments were not at all funny. Many were misogynistic or sexist remarks, and although I understand that they were done in the context of the day, book and within character, I did not find them witty or satirical. Charles has no real redeeming features about him.

However, I did find Charles’ comment on the female bodily functions once they shacked up amusing and spot on. Neither of us defecated, spat, had bogeys or arses (p.176). There is so much pressure to pretend that the human body does none of these actions, to be clean and pure, that is becomes absurd.

Reading notes.