What the Family Needed (2011) – Steven AMSTERDAM

I’ve made a (potentially) terrible decision. I’ve joined a book club. Fortunately, it’s made up of like minded people, and for the moment, I’m picking the shortlisted books (I’m not completely unreasonable.) What the Family Needed was on the first shortlist because I’d heard good things about Steven Amsterdam’s first novel, Things We Didn’t See Coming, and I’m a sucker for genre crossover fiction. What could possibly go wrong?

When her 7 year old cousin, Alek, asks a young Giordana, if she wants to fly or be invisible, she picks invisibility. Little does she know that this answer will actually give her the ability to become invisible at will. Slowly, other members of her family discover that they, too, have superpowers, and as Giordana grows up, so too does the rest of her family. From the dizzying heights of a young man learning to fly, to an old man almost wishing his dead wife back into existence, this is a very incredible family.

I’ll say this from the outset: What the Family Needed is not a bad book. If you can’t tell from that damned-with-faint-praise sentence, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. There are some good bits – and I’ll get to those eventually – but it was weighed down by too many “meh” moments which meant, even though I read it quite quickly, I never felt really carried away until the very end. Maybe I just kept reading to see when it finally got good?

Giving one’s characters superpowers is nothing new. Superheroes, in their current form, have existed for nigh on a century now, so it’s a brave author who uses this trope with the hope of saying something new. And there’s the fundamental problem at the core of this novel – it’s nothing new. We’ve all seen The Incredibles, Heroes and Misfits – we know what it’s like for ordinary people to have extraordinary powers. Amsterdam tries to take it to extremes – his main characters are almost too ordinary as to be tropes. There’s the teenage girl trying to deal with her parents’ divorce – she can turn invisible to escape the pain. There’s her older brother who falls into a marriage in which he feels trapped – he can fly to escape the humdrum every day life into which he has been sucked. There’s the gay cousin who can’t tell his parents about his sexuality, and can’t keep down a steady relationship – he has the ability to bring people together.

But once their powers are removed, they’re just not very interesting people. As a family drama, it doesn’t really work. Amsterdam devotes one section to each of the seven main characters, and follows them as they deal with their powers. There is some overlap, but there are huge time jumps between each section, which makes this far closer to a collection of linked short stories than a traditional novel. But each story follows the same basic shape, and by the fourth or fifth time, you can pretty much map out what will happen. An event will trigger the power in the character. They will spend some time testing its limits. They will use it. They will feel good that there is something more than their humdrum life. Repeat. Good science fiction melds the mundane and the extraordinary into one believable conglomerate, but I think in his attempt to win the literary-minded reader over with his conceit, he goes too far in the other direction, and gives us too much of the ordinary.

There is however, one redeeming feature. Alek. It’s clear Amsterdam has put most of his work into creating this one character who is a constant throughout the entire novel. A slightly-too-imaginative young boy turns into an introspective, ADHD teenager, who turns into a social waif, moving through the city, and eventually the world, without seeming to care about any “real” problems. He spends a lot of his time off-stage, and you’re always wanting to know more about this mysterious man-child. One’s patience is rewarded in the last chapter, which is Alek’s, and hands-down the best story. Much like Hiro from Heroes, Alek has the ability to manipulate the space-time continuum (though Amsterdam never deigns to call it that). It’s a fascinating power, and Amsterdam has taken it to its logical extreme – what happens to someone who is constantly having to deal with multiple timelines and parallel universes only known to him? No wonder Alek is a bit nutty – inside his brain lies a multitude of possibilities and things-that-never-were, things that no one else could literally ever know. It’s explained in scarily clear detail in this last section, as Alek rebuilds his life around him as though he was never the odd one, and in many ways, it’s the most touching part of the novel. That Alek has to rearrange the entire universe around him to make his family happy is terrifying. Some of my friends found it nice – I found it immensely depressing.

So maybe this is the question we need to ask about the novel? Do any of them actually have special powers? Certainly none of them every make a show of it to the rest of their family or friends. Are they just dreaming of things they wish they could do? Maybe it’s so subtle a metaphor I missed it completely. But Asterdam presents it with little suggestion of this – it’s all played incredibly straight, right up until the surprisingly upbeat ending.

For a book billing itself as an adult version of The Incredibles, What the Family Needed is surprisingly low-key. It’s the story of seven members of one family who discover they can do extraordinary things, though none of them ever do. It’s a weird novel that tries to take the superhero genre and fit it into middle Australia, though never quite manages to get either side quite right.

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