November 2011

Arts & Letters

‘What the Family Needed’ by Steven Amsterdam

By Cate Kennedy
'What the Family Needed', By Steven Amsterdam, Sleepers Publishing, 280pp; $24.95

Steven Amsterdam’s award-winning 2009 debut, Things We Didn’t See Coming, heralded the arrival of a richly comic, original and utterly assured new voice. In his second book, Amsterdam again deploys a discontinuous narrative technique, presenting us with a novel-in-stories related by different characters whose interior points of view continually shape our impressions. And again, there are long chronological gaps between sections, so we witness fragments of individual lives ricocheting off each other over three decades.

While the novel begins sedately enough, Amsterdam takes us before long into strange and marvellous territory, endowing each of his characters with a superhuman power. It’s like The Incredibles but with real people who realise they have the power to fly, read minds and so on; it is suggested that this ‘gift’ is bestowed by a single character, Alek. This device might have been cartoonish and gimmicky but Amsterdam’s deft touch, always managing to confound our narrative expectations, makes the work brace itself – like one astonished character – then lift off.

The prose is characteristically fresh, brimming with shrewd, rueful observations about human foibles and possibilities. Amsterdam constructs his complex pattern of interdependencies like a Jenga tower – clarifying in gradual satisfying increments why his characters do what they do, with lucid passages of interior monologue that show the author’s talent at full stretch.

Amsterdam delights in disconcerting us. Alek, for example, believes he can take other characters back in time and make them relive episodes to create a myriad of different outcomes. This creates the disjointed sense that any reality we’re reading about is a flimsy artifice. Even a death is reversed and nullified, negating the certainty of an entire preceding section – stretching chronological coherence to an extent that tests even Amsterdam’s highwire powers.

The novel’s characters believe Alek is delusional, but we’re not so sure. Are we witnessing the garbled grandiosity of a mind in the freefall of psychosis, or could it be that Alek really does possess a godlike power to control space, time and perception? Can he really create new memories and alternate realities? We’re inside his head in the final section and it’s a weird, unsettling place to be.

By the book’s conclusion, everything is up for grabs: What actually happened? Who’s pulling the strings? Are there any strings at all? Or do we just need to learn to be content with the moment as it is experienced, the chaos of “all the faces, with the hundred-armed clatter simmering behind them” that we constantly, perhaps pointlessly, strive to understand?

Amsterdam never explains. A psychiatric and palliative care nurse when he’s not writing, he’s clearly no stranger to psychosis and mortality, and interested in exploring those themes to the full reach of his effortlessly inventive ability. With such a ferocious intelligence and playful curiosity at work here, all we can hope for is to hang on for the ride.

Cate Kennedy
Cate Kennedy is the author of Dark Roots and The World Beneath. She writes poetry, short stories and novels, and has written for the New Yorker.

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