You Think That's Bad
Alfred A. Knopf: 226 pp., $24.95
It's not that Jim Shepard isn't known, exactly; it's that he isn't known enough. Although his 2007 collection of short fiction, "Like You'd Understand, Anyway," was a finalist for the National Book Award, he has never fully caught on with readers — his work is too diverse, too out there, too plain unclassifiable to find a place among the silos that define so much of our conversation about writers and books.
That's to our detriment, for, beginning with his first novel, "Flights," in 1983, Shepard has traced his own odd line through contemporary fiction, engaging everything from historical figures to the most outrageous landscapes of the imagination to fuel his work. In "Nosferatu" (1998), he builds a novel around the German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau; "Project X" (2004) describes a Columbine-like school shooting from the point of view of one of the attackers, a confused eighth-grader who seems as surprised as anyone when the shooters' plan actually takes shape. These are prototypic Shepard characters: adrift, a bit uncertain, with a strangely futile sense of destiny. "At this point," the narrator declares in "The Netherlands Lives With Water," "each of us understands privately that we're operating under the banner of lost control."
"The Netherlands Lives With Water" is one of 11 stories in Shepard's new collection, "You Think That's Bad," and it's a stunner: a look at a future Holland in which climate change has created a flood crisis so extreme that it's no longer certain how or whether the country will survive. "It's the catastrophe for which the Dutch have been planning for fifty years," Shepard tells us. "Or, really, for as long as we've existed. We had cooperative water management before we had a state." What such a story really traces, however, is the point at which cooperation, management, all the tools of civilization may no longer be enough.
That's a running theme in "You Think That's Bad," which balances an understanding of history with a recognition that we may be living at the end of history, at a place where narrative can go only so far. Again and again, Shepard gives us characters at the edge of their endurance, not just at the end of their ropes but at the end of their lives. In "The Track of the Assassins," a female British explorer of the 1930s goes in search of the legendary Hassan-i Sabbah and his band of assassins; although she initially impresses her guides ("One evening apropos of nothing [Ismail] remarked that it was no wonder England was a mighty nation, since its women did what Persian men feared to attempt"), the story ends with her weak from malaria and dysentery, staring down eternity "with [her] hands upon [her] breasts." In "Poland Is Watching," a pair of Polish mountaineers — friends since childhood — become the first climbers to reach the summit of Nanga Parbat, "the world's ninth-tallest mountain," only to succumb to the snow, wind and cold.
These stories bring their first-person narrators right up to the point of obliteration, leaving us exhilarated and despairing at once. It's a peculiar tension, but it works because Shepard never flinches from its implications. "Most people don't know what it's like to look down the road and see there's nothing there," explains the narrator of "Boys Town," a 38-year-old veteran at the breaking point. "You try to tell somebody that but they just look at you. I don't know why people need to hear the same thing ten thousand times, but they do."
At the heart of such a vision is the idea of disconnection, of the things we do that keep us from ourselves. Shepard's characters are, for the most part, distracted: husbands, fathers, coworkers lost among the surfaces of the world. "Gojira, King of the Monsters" — which reflects the author's long-held fascination with pop culture (one of his early stories reframes "Creature From the Black Lagoon" from the monster's perspective) — portrays Eiji Tsuburaya, the real-life Japanese special-effects wizard who created the original Godzilla, as a man whose fascination with the orderliness of model-building reflects an inability to deal with the messiness of family life. "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" and "Happy With Crocodiles" portray young men wrestling with the specters of brothers who are friends and rivals, especially when it comes to the women they love.
"I don't think I'm ready to get married," says the narrator of the latter story. "But the minute I said it I thought, But I do want to be buried with her." That's a key line, all the more so when we consider that it comes from a soldier pinned down in an Indonesian jungle in the fiercest days of World War II. What he is saying, after all, is that there's something safer, something more containable about the stillness of the grave than the entanglements of a living relationship. It's a brutal notion, and perhaps nowhere does Shepard investigate it more relentlessly than in "Classical Scenes of Farewell," the story of a young servant to the 15th century French madman Gilles de Rais, who narrates his confession before his execution for helping his master mutilate and kill 142 young boys. "God will come to know our secrets," he tells us. "At our immolation He'll appear to us and pour His gold out at our feet. And His grace that we kicked away will become like a tower on which we might stand. And His grace will raise us to such a height that we might glimpse the men we aspired to be."
You can read that declaration in a number of ways: as a statement of transcendence, or of delusion, or as a little bit of both. Regardless, it is fundamentally human — contradictory, full of bravado, clinging to hope when there is no reason (was there ever?) to be hopeful anymore. In such a context, it matters less what a character has done than where he finds himself, how even facing the limits of his own morality and endurance he can't help but reach out for the promise of possibility. "'What are you really looking for?' my wife said to me, last thing, before I left," recalls the narrator of "Low-Hanging Fruit," who works as a theoretical physicist. "What we're all looking for. That saving thing, I think: something that right now is beyond our ability to even imagine."