You Think That’s Bad

I livein Washington, D.C., a town full of sharp people who furrow their brows whenasked if they read fiction. Nonfiction is their bag—not all that made-up stuff.They want to learn something whenthey pick up a book. Putting aside the argument that gaining insight into thehuman condition might do our thought leaders more good than reading anotherpolicy brief, the other appropriate response to this objection is to shove oneof 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 in2007, You Think That’s Bad is an astonishing collection of stories whosevaried settings, characters, and themes are the result of a hell of a lot ofresearch. This is evident in the extensive list of source materials thatShepard provides. (Or perhaps flaunts. Well, who cares? He deserves some creditfor combing through the Municipality of Rotterdam’s Waterplan 2 Rotterdam.)

All eleven of thesestories have appeared elsewhere, one as a stand-alone novella, the others inmagazines including the stalwart NewYorker and newcomer ElectricLiterature. Even ardent fans of the short story must concede that, whenreading an author’s output of several years at a sitting, the plots andcharacters tend to bleed into each other, with perhaps two or three trulymemorable tales. That’s not a hazard when reading Jim Shepard. You Think That’s Bad includes storiesthat feature a hydraulic engineer working in the climate-changed Netherlands ofthe near future, where water is overwhelming the country’s dike system; a youngSwiss researcher who becomes obsessed with studying the instability of snowafter his brother dies in an avalanche he believes he may have caused; theJapanese special effects guru who took inspiration for the movie monsterGodzilla from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a peasant boy of the 1400spressed into the service of a sadistic French nobleman who kills children forpleasure; and a group of Polish climbers who defy the elements, and theirwives, to scale mountains in the middle of winter.

Many of the storiesexplore extremes of human endurance and endeavor (and the consequent toll onhuman relationships), though a few plumb the other depths to which Shepard isan expert guide: human underachievement. The mystery of motive propels thesestories along, the crystal transparency of Shepard’s language only emphasizinghis characters’ inscrutability. As a character who’s run off life’s rails saysin “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 dowhat they do (or, at least as often, why they don’t do what they should bedoing).

“Netherlands Liveswith Water,” the story set in Rotterdam not many years hence, is astandout 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-breadthbalance between gathering apocalyptic events and the fraying marriage of thereticent narrator and his wife. It’s impossible to read Shepard’s account ofhow storms breach the city’s water defenses without thinking of the recenttsunami and the nuclear reactor disaster in Japan—a country that, like theNetherlands, has staked its future and its infrastructure on the calculationsof supposedly infallible engineers. This is the sort of somber intersectionbetween life and art that should give those who scoff at fiction real pause.

And the story includes oneof the most devastating descriptions I’ve read of a failed relationship betweentwo people who have long loved each other:

Wewent on vacations and fielded each other’s calls and took turns reading Henk tosleep and let slip away the miracle that was there between us when we firstcame together. We hunkered down before the wind picked up. We modeled riskmanagement for our son when instead we could have embraced the freefall of thatastonishing Here, this is yours to hold. Wetold each other I think I know whenwe should’ve said Lead me farther throughyour amazing, astonishing interior.

Romantic relationships inShepard’s stories don’t fare too well, generally because his male charactersare constantly disappointing women who expectmore. (With the exception of “The Track of the Assassins,” whichimagines intrepid traveler Freya Stark’s early expedition to find thestronghold of an esoteric Shia sect, Shepard’s central characters are men.) Heelaborates on this theme whether offering glimpses of the personal life of EijiTsuburaya, the special effects master who conjures Godzilla even as he growsincreasingly aloof from his family, or a particle physicist who, in his wife’sestimation, possesses a “capacity for certain kinds of curiosities and[an] apparent incapacity for others.”

Shepard only strikes aflat note when he turns to modern stories that focus directly on the failure ofhuman relationships, without the foreground of an Alpine slope, a climate infreefall, or a particle accelerator. Take “In Cretaceous Seas,” whichbegins promisingly with a spine-tingling description of the predators who swamthe Tethys Ocean millions of years ago. But the ocean turns out only to serveas 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 shittybrother, a lousy father, a lazy helpmate, a wreck of a husband.” The storycatalogues his sins for a couple of pages, and then it’s over-and-out. “BoysTown,” about an army vet living with his mother, though more fullyrealized, is another how-low-can-he-go? tale.

Shepard has done somebrilliant work in this vein. “Courtesy for Beginners,” about a boy’ssummer camp trip from hell, and “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak,”about a high school football player out for blood to impress his estrangedfather, both of which appear in Like You’dUnderstand, Anyway, are memorable tales of male self-abasement. In fact, he’sdone this kind of thing so well already that perhaps he should start debatingwhether to do it at all any more.

But this is a quibble. You Think That’s Bad is an excitingcollection of stories that show what the form can be. They cast light onparticulars so concrete that they call up the love, hate, despair, and—moststarkly—alienation that we all feel, a feat of alchemy that’s rarer than itought to be in fiction. These are stories that even skeptics who want theirbooks to be about something willappreciate.