Like You'd Understand, Anyway

Like You'd Understand, Anyway

5.0 3
by Jim Shepard
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

Following his widely acclaimed Project X and Love and Hydrogen—“Here is the effect of these two books,” wrote the Chicago Tribune: “A reader finishes them buzzing with awe”—Jim Shepard now gives us his first entirely new collection in more than a decade.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway reaches

See more details below

Overview

Following his widely acclaimed Project X and Love and Hydrogen—“Here is the effect of these two books,” wrote the Chicago Tribune: “A reader finishes them buzzing with awe”—Jim Shepard now gives us his first entirely new collection in more than a decade.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway reaches from Chernobyl to Bridgeport, with a host of narrators only Shepard could bring to pitch-perfect life. Among them: a middle-aged Aeschylus taking his place at Marathon, still vying for parental approval. A maddeningly indefatigable Victorian explorer hauling his expedition, whaleboat and all, through the Great Australian Desert in midsummer. The first woman in space and her cosmonaut lover, caught in the star-crossed orbits of their joint mission. Two Texas high school football players at the top of their food chain, soliciting their fathers’ attention by leveling everything before them on the field. And the rational and compassionate chief executioner of Paris, whose occupation, during the height of the Terror, eats away at all he holds dear.

Brimming with irony, compassion, and withering humor, these eleven stories are at once eerily pertinent and dazzlingly exotic, and they showcase the work of a protean, prodigiously gifted writer at the height of his form. Reading Jim Shepard, according to Michael Chabon, “is like encountering our national literature in microcosm.”

Read More

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Forged from the world with a sharp eye and a careful ear, serving no agenda but literature's primary and oft-forgotten one: the delight of the reader.” —The New York Times Book Review“Gutsy, brilliantly imagined, strongly made, fresh and propulsive.” —Chicago Tribune“With a near spooky sense of empathy and a wit that finds its mark like lightning, the stories in Jim Shepard's Like You'd Understand, Anyway transport readers light-years beyond what they think they know of the world.” —Vanity Fair“Exquisite, multifaceted tales.” —The New Yorker “A macro book with a micro eye. These wildly diverse stories share a fascination with the inevitable cost of familial obligation and the inescapable fallout from disaster, both natural and human-made.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review“Cannily crafted. . . . The stories couldn't be funnier-or deadlier-in this mad-smart, wildly inventive set.” —Elle “Jim Shepard is really a terrific writer. And it's not just the precision of the sentences. . . . It is the way he captures people throughout time with such an exact piercing, as though he's mapped out every corresponding nerve that can make us go weak at the knees.” —Providence Journal“An astounding set of stories . . . so dangerously brilliant, they're radioactive.” —O Magazine
Daniel Handler
In all his work, Shepard is after something our current literature far too often avoids. The short-story form, in particular, has fallen lately into two camps: the realistic kind (in which one of a small quiver of pyschological tropes is played out quietly in a few scenes) and the experimental kind (in which an unusual premise or point of view that would grow tiring in a novel is explored, often with a sudden twist). These are both very readable forms, and much gorgeous prose can be found stretched on their frames. Yet Shepard somehow manages to write simultaneously in both of them—and neither of them. His far-ranging plots aren't illustrations of the usual conclusions, and he doesn't tackle an unusual premise just to prove that he can. Instead, he has found a route through these terrains that leads to end points both surprising and inevitable. In other words, he's telling stories. That this should feel like an original approach is testimony to how bracing his work really is…Like You'd Understand, Anyway serves as testament not only to Jim Shepard's talents but also to the power of the short story itself, forged from the world with a sharp eye and a careful ear, serving no agenda but literature's primary and oft-forgotten one: the delight of the reader.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Following the novel Project Xand Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories, Shepard's new collection takes in landscapes as diverse as 1986 Chernobyl in "The Zero Meter Diving Team," to 1840s down under in "The First South Central Australian Expedition." It's clear that Shepard has done his research in these 11 first-person tales-be it on Alaskan tidal waves for a story about a man contemplating a vasectomy while reliving a childhood tragedy in "Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay," or Sherpas and the Chang Tang tundra in "Ancestral Legacies," and his precision gives the poignant longing and human emotion of the stories room to resonate. Save for "Eros 7," about a lovelorn Soviet cosmonaut and set during the U.S.-Russia space race, all the stories are told by men, often with few female characters. At the core, each is essentially an exploration of familial relationships between men-be it the ill-fated trio of brothers working at the nuclear reactor or the unhappy adolescent camper calling home to find out about his mentally disturbed younger brother in "Courtesy for Beginners." Shepard's far-flung explorations get very close to the male heart. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In his latest offering, veteran fiction writer Shepard (Project X) poses some interesting questions about the very nature of short fiction. The 11 tightly written pieces often take place in a historical setting. But whether they feature Chernobyl on the eve of the meltdown or a track into the inhospitable Australian interior, these stories generate tension that revolves around the movements of their characters. A time-honored tradition of fiction writing is that the lead paragraph must be among the strongest, and several pieces here feature openings that could stand as short stories in their own right. But rather than building tension to a combustible crescendo or opting for the open-ended terminus of the postmodern novel, Shepard gently diffuses the energy he's taken such pains to accumulate. In this sense, his fiction admits a modern truth: that the buildup contributes more to a story than its eventual "resolution." Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Chris Pusateri

Kirkus Reviews
So varied in tone, theme, voice and setting are these stories that they might've been written by a hydra. A hydra, that is, surfeited with remarkable wit, compassion and the gift of gab. The Great Australian Desert, Chernobyl, Beaumont, Texas, the plain of Marathon and "the roof of the world," Tibet's Kunlun Mountains and the Trans-Himalayas-Shepard (Project X, 2004, etc.) seems to have been everywhere. Readers will feel that they have too after a saturation in his terrific third collection. As Boris Yakovlevich Prushinsky, engineer of the Depatment of Nuclear Energy in "The Zero Meter Diving Team," with the head-in-the-sand finesse of a Soviet functionary, oversees a boo-boo that wastes Mother Russia (kids getting mouth cancer, deaths in the untold thousands), we're given a stern, black-humor lesson: "Science requires victims." In "Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian," a seventh grader, home sick from school, watching "Jonathan Winters on Merv Griffin, doing his improv thing with a stick," learns another kind of heartbreak, playing with his brother stricken with a strange disease and hair "falling out because of the medication." Felicius Victor, son of the centurion Annius Equestor, guards Hadrian's Wall in the province of Britannia and has a jeweler's squint for detail, telling us about everything from his "small shrine erected to Viradecthis" to his diet (hare, broadbeans, coriander). He's also clear-eyed about conquest: "We make a desolation and we call it peace." In "Sans Farine," Charles-Henri Sanson, aka "the Keystone of the Revolution," wrestles with his conscience during the Reign of Terror as well as "the emptied bran sacks [that] hold the severed heads." Freakishly erudite, Shepardwrites fiction that glories in the sheer too-muchness of life-its superabundance of emotion, incident and sensory delight. Virtuoso work.

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307277602
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/12/2008
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
450,403
Product dimensions:
5.36(w) x 10.84(h) x 0.69(d)

Read an Excerpt

Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay

Two and a half weeks after I was born, on July 9th, 1958, the plates that make up the Fairweather Range in the Alaskan panhandle apparently slipped twenty-one feet on either side of the Fairweather fault, the northern end of a major league instability that runs the length of North America. The thinking now is that the southwest side and bottom of the inlets at the head of Lituya Bay jolted upward and to the northwest, and the northeast shore and head of the bay jolted downward and to the southeast. One way or the other, the result registered 8.3 on the Richter scale.

The bay is T-shaped and seven miles long and two wide at the stem, and according to those who were there it went from a glassy smoothness to a full churn, a giant’s Jacuzzi. Next to it, mountains twelve to fifteen thousand feet high twisted into themselves and lurched in contrary directions. In Juneau, 122 miles to the southeast, people who’d turned in early were pitched from their beds. The shock waves wiped out bottom-dwelling marine life throughout the panhandle. In Seattle, a thousand miles away, the University of Washington’s seismograph needle was jarred completely off its graph. And meanwhile, back at the head of the bay, a spur of mountain and glacier the size of a half-mile-wide city park–forty million cubic yards in volume–broke off and dropped three thousand feet down the northeast cliff into the water.

This is all by way of saying that it was one of the greatest spasms, when it came to the release of destructive energy, in history. It happened around 10:16 p.m. At that latitude and time of year, still light out. There were three small boats anchored in the south end of the bay.

The rumbling from the earthquake generated vibrations that the occupants of the boats could feel on their skin like electric shock. The impact of the rockfall that followed made a sound like Canada exploding. There were two women, three men, and a seven-year-old boy in the three boats. They looked up to see a wave breaking over the seventeen-hundred-foot-high southwest bank of Gilbert Inlet and heading for the opposite slope. What they were looking at was the largest wave ever recorded by human beings. It scythed off three-hundred-year-old pines and cedars and spruce, some of them with trunks three or four feet thick, along a trimline of 1,720 feet. That’s a wave crest 500 feet higher than the Empire State Building.

Fill your bathtub. Hold a football at shoulder height and drop it into the water. Imagine the height of the tub above the waterline to be two thousand feet. Scale the height of the initial splash up proportionately.

When I was two years old, my mother decided she’d had enough of my father and hunted down an old high school girlfriend who’d wandered so far west she’d taken a job teaching in a grammar school in Hawaii. The school was in a little town called Pepeekeo. All of this was told to me later by my mother’s older sister. My mother and I moved in with the friend, who lived in a little beach cottage on the north shore of the island near an old mill, Pepeekeo Mill. We were about twelve miles north of Hilo. This was in 1960.

The friend’s name was Chuck. Her real name was Charlotte something, but everyone apparently called her Chuck. My aunt had a photo she showed me of me playing in the sand with some breakers in the background. I’m wearing something that looks like overalls put on backward. Chuck’s drinking beer from a can.

And one morning Chuck woke my mother and me up and asked if we wanted to see a tidal wave. I don’t remember any of this. I was in pajamas and my mother put a robe on me and we trotted down the beach and looked around the point to the north. I told my mother I was scared and she said we’d go back to the house if the water got too high. We saw the ocean suck itself out to sea smoothly and quietly, and the muck of the sand and some flipping and turning white-bellied fish that had been left behind. Then we saw it come back, without any surf or real noise, like the tide coming in in time-lapse photography. It came past the hightide mark and just up to our toes. Then it receded again. “Some wave,” my mother told me. She lifted me up so I could see the end of it. Some older boys who lived on Mamalahoa Highway sprinted past us, chasing the water. They got way out, the mud spraying up behind their heels. And the water came back again, this time even smaller. The boys, as far out as they were, were still only up to their waists. We could hear how happy they sounded. Chuck told us the show was over, and we headed up the beach to the house. My mother wanted me to walk, but I wanted her to carry me. We heard a noise and when we turned we saw the third wave. It was already the size of the lighthouse out at Wailea. They’d gotten me into the cottage and halfway up the stairs to the second floor when the walls blew in. My mother managed to slide me onto a corner of the roof that was spinning half a foot above the water. Chuck went under and didn’t come up again. My mother was carried out to sea, still hanging on to me and the roof chunk. She’d broken her hip and bitten through her lower lip. We were picked up later that day by a little boat near Honohina.

She was never the same after that, my aunt told me. This was maybe by way of explaining why I’d been put up for adoption a few months later. My mother had gone to teach somewhere in Alaska. Somewhere away from the coast, my aunt added with a smile. She pretended she didn’t know exactly where. I’d been left with the Franciscan Sisters at the Catholic orphanage in Kahili. On the day of my graduation, one of the sisters who’d taken an interest in me grabbed both of my shoulders and shook me and said, “What is it you want? What’s the matter with you?” They weren’t bad questions, as far as I was concerned.

I saw my aunt that once, the year before college. My fiancée, many years later, asked if we were going to invite her to the wedding, and then later that night said, “I guess you’re not going to answer, huh?”

Sans Farine

My father, Jean-Baptiste Sanson, had christened in the church of Saint-Laurent two children: a daughter, who married Pierre Hérisson, executioner of Melun, and a son, myself. After my mother’s death he remarried, his second wife from a family of executioners in the province of Touraine. Together they produced twelve children, eight of whom survived, six of whom were boys. All six eventually registered in the public rolls as executioners, my half brothers beginning their careers by assisting their father and then myself in the city of Paris.

My name is Charles-Henri Sanson, known to many throughout this city as the Keystone of the Revolution, and known to the rabble as Sans Farine, in reference to my use of emptied bran sacks to hold the severed heads. I was named for Charles Sanson, former adventurer and soldier of the King and until 1668 executioner of Cherbourg and Caudebec-en-Caux. My father claimed he was descended from Sanson de Longval and that our family coat of arms derived from either the First or Second Crusade. Its escutcheon represents another play on our name: a cracked bell and the motto San son: without sound.

You want to know–all France wants to know–what takes place in the executioner’s mind: the figure who before the Revolution wielded the double-bladed axe and double-handed sword and who branded, burned, and broke on the wheel all who came before him. The figure who now slides heads through what they call the Republican Window on the guillotine. Does he eat? Does he sleep? Do his smiles freeze the blood? Is he kind to those he kills? Does he touch his wife on days he works? Does he reach for you with blood-rimmed fingernails? Did he spring full-blown from a black pit to send batch after batch through the guillotine?

Becoming shrill, my wife calls it, whenever I get too agitated in my own defense.

“What struck people’s minds above all else,” Livy, the great Roman, wrote in his History on Brutus’s sacrifice of his own sons for the good of the Republic, “is that his function as consul imposed on the father the task of punishing his sons, and that his unbendingness compelled him personally to order the execution, the very sight of which was not spared him.” In Guérin’s rendering of the scene, the hero turns away but does not blanch. Standing before it in the old Royal Academy with Anne-Marie, I told her that perhaps this is the way we attain the sublime: by our fierce devotion to the required. She was not able to agree.

I am a good Catholic. The people’s judges hand out their sentences, and mine is the task of insuring that their words become incarnate. I am the instrument, and it is justice that strikes. I feel the same remorse as anyone required to be present at an execution.

Before the Revolution, justice was apportioned and discharged in the name of the King, who ruled by divine right as one of God’s implements. Punishment of malefactors was God’s will and therefore earned for his sovereign minister God’s grace and esteem. But in the eyes of most, that grace and esteem did not extend as far as the sovereign’s handservant. Before the Revolution, daughters of executioners were forbidden to marry outside the profession. When their girls came of age, such families had to display on their doors a yellow affidavit clarifying the family’s trade, and acknowledging the taint in their bloodline. Letters of commission and payments were not passed into their hands but dropped before them. They were required to live at the southern ends of towns, and their houses had to be painted red.

Before the Revolution, a woman with whom I dined at an inn demanded I be made to appear in court to apologize for having shared with her a dinner table. She petitioned that executioners be directed to wear a particular badge or color upon their coats or singlets so that all would know their profession. Before the Revolution, our children were allowed no playmates but one another.

For lunch today there was egg soup with lemon juice and broth, cock’s comb, a marrowbone, chicken fried in bread crumbs, jelly, apricots, bread, and fennel comfits. Clearing the table, Anne-Marie reminisced about a holiday we took when the children were small. When she speaks to me, she holds the family before us like a pleasing little stove. At first she was able to treat this terrible time as a brigand unable to trespass upon the better world she bore within.

With children, everything and nothing registers. My earliest memory is of the house outside Paris, and the height of the manure pile, and the muck dropped by the household geese. I remember flies whenever one went outside. I remember my mother’s calm voice and associate it with needlework. She was fond of saying that I had no ideas of grandeur and that she would wish that to continue. My grandmother always chided me for losing even a crumb of my bread, since, as she put it, I couldn’t make for myself even that. My father was a quiet man who, when it came to my understanding the world, resolved that his little boy should become a person capable of self-sufficiency, so he allowed me to negotiate my own passage through that household. I was perceived to be headstrong but inhibited. I was sent away at an early age and then pitched from school to school, since the moment my classmates uncovered my family’s profession, life became unbearable again. I wrote my mother a series of supplications outlining my misery and pleading for a response. In a cheerless chapel in a school in Rouen—my fourth in as many years—I received my father’s letter informing me of her death.

He remarried; the house was repopulated with half brothers and sisters; I stayed away at my schools. I matured into a beanstalk whose expressions excited pity on the street. My teachers knew me as dutiful, alert, frugal, and friendless: a nonentity with ambitions. I was often cold and known for my petitions to sit nearer the room’s hearth. I volunteered for small errands so that in solitude I might gather the strength to face the rest of the day. I wrote to myself in my notebooks that I felt my bleak present within me and ached to my bones with wondering if loneliness would always be the measure of my days.

Anne-Marie was a market gardener’s daughter in Montmartre, her father’s establishment a luncheon stop on my infrequent visits home from school. She was his eldest, born the same day as myself, and when we first conversed I imagined that we had loved each other from that date, unawares.

Her first act in my presence was to scratch at a rash on her foot until chided by her father entering the room with the roast. She visited the water closet, and back at the table returned my gaze as if examining a distant coastline. She was still chewing a bit of carrot. From that first meeting I have perched perpetually, in a kind of dreamy distress, on the very edge of relieving my longings. Her lovely large mouth and deep-set eyes with their veiled expression, and her child’s posture have been my harbor and receding horizon. Her seat, that first luncheon, was in the sun, and her skin was so fine I could see the circulation of her blood. When she blushed, I could feel the warmth.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >