Apr/May 2011

Facts of Life

Jim Shepard casts his characters in the rising tide of history

Justin Taylor


There are a few constants in Jim Shepard's fiction. The first is disaster: war, divorce, scientific catastrophes, murder, acts of God. The second is primary-source research. Shepard is the only short-story writer I have ever read whose collections come with bibliographies as a matter of course. Along with your hearty helping of human drama, a Shepard story serves up all sorts of facts: about handgun specs, the Cenozoic Era, how it feels to be John Entwistle (bassist for the Who) or serve in a Roman-legion detachment to the British frontier. In "The Track of the Assassins," the legendary female explorer and travel writer Freya Stark treks across parts of Persia that at the time (1930) had hardly been seen by Western eyes: "The plain opened out before us, dotted every so often with far-off low mounds that I assumed to be buried cities. For three full days we encountered no trace of human beings save the occasional heap of stones arranged days or decades ago. While we rode Ismail sang a Kurdish song whose chorus was 'Because of my love / my liver is like a kabob.'"

In a few vivid sentences we are taken from the vastness of the desert to the coziness of the guide's goofy tune. Humor is Shepard's third constant: It humanizes his larger-than-life protagonists and helps keep his stories from becoming research papers. Though he has an obvious camaraderie with George Saunders, Karen Russell, and other leading lights of the absurdist-fabulist school, he is ineluctably a realist writer. The occasional mythical creature or rock band notwithstanding, his work is always in pursuit of what his fictionalized Stark calls "proof that the Grail of our imaginations . . . belong[s] to the tangible world."

"The Track of the Assassins" comes from You Think That's Bad, Shepard's follow-up to his 2007 collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway. LYUA, a finalist for the National Book Award, was itself the follow-up to 2004's Love and Hydrogen, a collection of new and selected stories that already contained enough greatness to justify a life's work in the form. Whether we're learning about Hassan-i Sabbah's desert fortress (Stark's ultimate destination), the Large Hadron Collider ("Low-Hanging Fruit"), or how accelerating climate change has impacted Dutch flood preparedness ("The Netherlands Lives with Water"), the stories in YTTB are powerful reminders that institutions cannot be considered apart from the individuals who populate them. Armies, empires, corporations, and film crews shape the lives and dreams of countless millions, even as their own fates are made or broken by a few visionary leaders or disobedient drones. Even in stories as strange as "In Cretaceous Seas"—about a pharmaceutical executive who ponders ancient sea predators, family troubles, and a drug that has likely caused a surge of miscarriages in Sri Lanka—Shepard finds fascinating ways to consider how the global and the personal are inextricably intertwined.

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Jim Shepard.

Though Shepard is stylistically a universe apart from W. G. Sebald, the trope of the individual swept up in (and perhaps obliterated by) the rising tide of history is central to both writers' work. The stories in YTTB are preoccupied with loss and memory and tend to divide their narrative attention between two time streams: A childhood marked by a singular trauma is recalled during a present-day adulthood of relative and precarious equanimity whose center won't hold for much longer. Of course, Sebald's narrators are solitary melancholics disposed toward reverie, whereas Shepard's are wisecracking solipsists who can't or won't please the people they're surrounded by: spouses, coworkers, kids. Shepard, quick with jokes and zingers, doesn't mind a bit of shtick when it suits him (cf. the titles of his two most recent books) and has written some of my favorite shmendriks—which this Jew from Miami means as high praise to the goy from Bridgeport, Connecticut. Shepard's hopeless cases couldn't find their way into a reverie if you drew them a map and gave them Proust for a tour guide, but they are awfully bugged by their pasts.

Throughout his career, Shepard (again, like Sebald) has been drawn to World War II. In Love and Hydrogen's title story, two rank-and-file Nazis on the crew of the Hindenburg are having a clandestine homosexual affair, and the rising tension between them impacts their maintenance work. "The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich," from the same book, follows British-trained Czech operatives on a Hail Mary mission to take out the architect of the Wannsee Conference. "Ancestral Legacies," for my money the best story in Like You'd Understand, Anyway, is narrated by one Ernst Schäfer, a scientist who has sold Himmler a bill of goods about "prehistoric and linguistic issues related to locating the core of the Nordic-Aryan legacy" in order to fund a trip to Tibet: "His theories are the donkey cart we've used to land us where we want to be: here on this high plateau with sufficient funding and no oversight, in search of the yeti."

You Think That's Bad contains three new entries in the Shepard WWII catalogue. "Happy with Crocodiles" follows a US battalion from the Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard to Papua New Guinea, where they grow restive waiting for orders or action. The boys are young, underequipped, bedeviled by the climate, and bemused by the local aborigines. As the downtime piles up and the humidity spoils even the canned food, the narrator sorts out memories of an older brother who may have had ulterior motives for pushing him to marry his high school sweetheart. It's a story of trust and betrayal that gradually transforms into a Nabokovian tangle of thorns.

"Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" is a magnificent war story despite having no war in it. A team of Swiss avalanche researchers who call themselves the Frozen Idiots have "volunteered to spend the coldest winter in recent memory in a little hut perched on a wind-blasted slope . . . 3,500 meters above Davos." The story's present day is 1939, but the narrator is haunted by memories of a twin brother, Willi, whose adolescent death from shock a few days after an avalanche ruined the family and drove their mother to obsessive study of the physical properties of snow. It is her amateur scholarship that the narrator seeks to build on. As another member of the team remarks, "At certain altitudes, nothing might be less like a particular location than that same location under different conditions." This wry, irrefutable nod toward the war (barely imaginable in '39, but in retrospect looming) dances right up to the edge of portentousness without falling over the side. The quote could serve as the motto of the collection.

Set in Japan in 1954, "Gojira, King of the Monsters" tells the story of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special-effects innovator who brought the world Rodan, Mothra, Ultraman, and, most important, Godzilla. It is a rare departure from the first person for Shepard (there are two in YTTB; LYUA contained none; there are six in the entire Love and Hydrogen) and he does not stray far. We are with Tsuburaya at all times and have access to his inner life. But the small space between narrator and protagonist is essential. Tsuburaya considers the destruction wrought by the Allied forces during the war (atomic bombs as well as merciless fire raids) in light of the 1923 earthquake that leveled Tokyo and Yokohama a generation earlier (his father was one of the many thousands killed). These memories of apocalyptic devastation—the first disaster natural, the second man-made—contrast with those of a baby daughter who died peacefully in her sleep years before. All the while, he's at work dreaming up the ultimate movie monster, as well as working out the technical challenges of actually building and filming the thing.

"Gojira" is without question the collection's pièce de résistance. It brings all of Shepard's energies to apotheosis and should have been the last story in the book—or, failing that, the first one. It is difficult, if you're reading straight through, to see the final three stories as much more than afterthoughts, particularly the paint-by-numbers "Boys Town," about an Iraq-war veteran with PTSD, which takes its title from the Spencer Tracy film of the same name.

Still, Shepard's rare failures are more interesting than a lot of other writers' successes, and he never commands less than your full attention. When the narrator of "Boys Town" says that "what I did was, in life you're supposed to leave yourself an out, and I didn't," you feel for him, no matter that his personal apocalypse has been predictable (and predicted) more or less from the story's start. In the last story, "Poland Is Watching," a winter mountaineer on the verge of collapse approaches the summit of deadly Nanga Parbat. Against all odds (and reason), he will attempt the final ascent. When he tells of the need to forge "connections to this wild and beautiful earth," he not only inspires belief and empathy, but seems to speak for every voice in the whole Jim Shepard catalogue, perhaps even for the author himself.

Justin Taylor is the author of the novel The Gospel of Anarchy (2011) and the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever (2010; both Harper Perennial).

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