You Think That's Bad

I live in Washington, D.C., a town full of sharp people who furrow their brows when asked if they read fiction. Nonfiction is their bag—not all that made-up stuff. They want to learn something when they pick up a book. Putting aside the argument that gaining insight into the human condition might do our thought leaders more good than reading another policy brief, the other appropriate response to this objection is to shove one of Jim Shepard's books into their hands.


Like Shepard's last book, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2007, You Think That's Bad is an astonishing collection of stories whose varied settings, characters, and themes are the result of a hell of a lot of research. This is evident in the extensive list of source materials that Shepard provides. (Or perhaps flaunts. Well, who cares? He deserves some credit for combing through the Municipality of Rotterdam's Waterplan 2 Rotterdam.)


All eleven of these stories have appeared elsewhere, one as a stand-alone novella, the others in magazines including the stalwart New Yorker and newcomer Electric Literature. Even ardent fans of the short story must concede that, when reading an author's output of several years at a sitting, the plots and characters tend to bleed into each other, with perhaps two or three truly memorable tales. That's not a hazard when reading Jim Shepard. You Think That's Bad includes stories that feature a hydraulic engineer working in the climate-changed Netherlands of the near future, where water is overwhelming the country's dike system; a young Swiss researcher who becomes obsessed with studying the instability of snow after his brother dies in an avalanche he believes he may have caused; the Japanese special effects guru who took inspiration for the movie monster Godzilla from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a peasant boy of the 1400s pressed into the service of a sadistic French nobleman who kills children for pleasure; and a group of Polish climbers who defy the elements, and their wives, to scale mountains in the middle of winter.


Many of the stories explore extremes of human endurance and endeavor (and the consequent toll on human relationships), though a few plumb the other depths to which Shepard is an expert guide: human underachievement. The mystery of motive propels these stories along, the crystal transparency of Shepard's language only emphasizing his characters' inscrutability. As a character who's run off life's rails says in "Boys Town," "I never know what I'm going to do next." Shepard's characters often seem as puzzled as everyone else about why they do what they do (or, at least as often, why they don't do what they should be doing).


"Netherlands Lives with Water," the story set in Rotterdam not many years hence, is a standout in a book of standouts. (It appeared in last year's edition of Best American Short Stories.) In this tale, Shepard strikes a hair's-breadth balance between gathering apocalyptic events and the fraying marriage of the reticent narrator and his wife. It's impossible to read Shepard's account of how storms breach the city's water defenses without thinking of the recent tsunami and the nuclear reactor disaster in Japan—a country that, like the Netherlands, has staked its future and its infrastructure on the calculations of supposedly infallible engineers. This is the sort of somber intersection between life and art that should give those who scoff at fiction real pause.


And the story includes one of the most devastating descriptions I've read of a failed relationship between two people who have long loved each other:

We went on vacations and fielded each other's calls and took turns reading Henk to sleep and let slip away the miracle that was there between us when we first came together. We hunkered down before the wind picked up. We modeled risk management for our son when instead we could have embraced the freefall of that astonishing Here, this is yours to hold. We told each other I think I know when we should've said Lead me farther through your amazing, astonishing interior.

Romantic relationships in Shepard's stories don't fare too well, generally because his male characters are constantly disappointing women who expect more. (With the exception of "The Track of the Assassins," which imagines intrepid traveler Freya Stark's early expedition to find the stronghold of an esoteric Shia sect, Shepard's central characters are men.) He elaborates on this theme whether offering glimpses of the personal life of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects master who conjures Godzilla even as he grows increasingly aloof from his family, or a particle physicist who, in his wife's estimation, possesses a "capacity for certain kinds of curiosities and [an] apparent incapacity for others."


Shepard only strikes a flat note when he turns to modern stories that focus directly on the failure of human relationships, without the foreground of an Alpine slope, a climate in freefall, or a particle accelerator. Take "In Cretaceous Seas," which begins promisingly with a spine-tingling description of the predators who swam the Tethys Ocean millions of years ago. But the ocean turns out only to serve as a metaphor for the ill-lived life of "this guy—we'll call him Conroy, because that's his fucking name," who's "been a crappy son, a shitty brother, a lousy father, a lazy helpmate, a wreck of a husband." The story catalogues his sins for a couple of pages, and then it's over-and-out. "Boys Town," about an army vet living with his mother, though more fully realized, is another how-low-can-he-go? tale.


Shepard has done some brilliant work in this vein. "Courtesy for Beginners," about a boy's summer camp trip from hell, and "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak," about a high school football player out for blood to impress his estranged father, both of which appear in Like You'd Understand, Anyway, are memorable tales of male self-abasement. In fact, he's done this kind of thing so well already that perhaps he should start debating whether to do it at all any more.


But this is a quibble. You Think That's Bad is an exciting collection of stories that show what the form can be. They cast light on particulars so concrete that they call up the love, hate, despair, and—most starkly—alienation that we all feel, a feat of alchemy that's rarer than it ought to be in fiction. These are stories that even skeptics who want their books to be about something will appreciate.

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