Miniaturist of Massive Catastrophe
Jim Shepard's short stories deal expertly with disaster.
Readers looking for a literary correlative to the images of disaster coming out of Japan over the past month might bypass Hiroshima and The China Syndrome and pick up Jim Shepard's latest short story collection instead. This isn't just because You Think That's Bad, Shepard's 10th book of fiction, contains a long story about the great Japanese special-effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, who turned the traumas of the 1923 earthquake and the World War II bombings into a keloid-scarred monster named Gojira, better known as Godzilla. "Man had created war and the Bomb and now nature was going to exact its revenge," an associate of Tsuburaya's says, "with tormented Gojira its way of making radiation visible." Shepard does the same for global warming and every other "shit storm of biblical proportions" heading our way. He's our leading miniaturist of massive catastrophe, the Jon Krakauer—or is it the Michael Bay?—of the MFA set, turning out short historical fictions that increasingly read like trailers for our disaster-movie future. Forget ashes to ashes: The earth is coming to get us, assuming our emotional self-starvation doesn't do us in first.
From Paper Doll (1986), his early novel about World War II airmen, to Project X (2004), his chilling ventriloquization of a Columbine-style teenage shooter, Shepard has trained his eye on men armed for battle. Here, you might say the forces Shepard's protagonists find themselves up against are cosmic if they weren't so specifically geologic and meteorologic. In "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," a team of Swiss scientists called die Harschblodeln, or the Frozen Idiots, bivouac at 3,500 feet above Davos in 1939 to study airborne avalanches that explode with the force of mushroom clouds. In "Happy With Crocodiles," set in New Guinea during World War II, a platoon of G.I.s climbing "the steepest mountains in the world" find their fiercest enemy isn't the Japanese but the unending rain that grows fungus under wedding rings and turns the trail into man-eating mud snake. By the time of "The Netherlands Lives With Water," set in a deluged Rotterdam around the year 2031, Shepard's characters no longer need to travel in search of extreme weather. "Remember, the Netherlands will always be here," a government flack in charge of giving reassurances about evacuation plans likes to say. "Though probably under three meters of water."
Yes, Shepard has read those evacuation plans; like his last collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway (2008), this one also ends with acknowledgments listing some 40 mostly nonfiction sources, from Storm Surge Barrier on the Wieuwe Waterweg to the string theorist Brian Greene's Fabric of the Cosmos. But the best stories here go far beyond the artfully deployed facts, mapping devastated inner landscapes with equal precision. In "The Netherlands Lives With Water," enormous waves may be washing over the storm walls but the real action lies in the narrator, a taciturn hydraulic engineer, realizing that the slow drip of everyday heartlessness masquerading as Dutch reasonableness has sunk his marriage, and that his wife may harbor secrets equal to his own. "What sort of person ends up with someone like me?" he asks with an earnest self-laceration most of Shepard's men can't quite manage.
What sort of person finds that acceptable, year after year? We went on vacation 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.
Between the longer historical stories, Shepard inserts portraits of messed-up contemporary men, elliptical and often very short pieces one would be tempted to call chasers if they didn't have so much throat-burning kick of their own. These guys are like the nameless interlocutors in David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, only with sexier jobs (particle physics, intelligence, pharmaceuticals). They may be domesticated compared with all the mountain-climbers and explorers, but late-capitalist deskwork has hardly civilized them. Emotionally speaking, they're still living either at 8,000 meters, where oxygen deprivation turns them into muscle-wasted zombies, or swimming so far beneath the surface of the ocean that extreme pressure has turned them into something like the now-extinct Xiphactinus (described in the brilliantly weird "In Cretaceous Seas"), "all angry underbite and knitting-needle teeth," face frozen in "a perpetual state of homicidal resentment." The typical Shepard guy is "a crappy son, a shitty brother, a lousy father, a lazy helpmate, a wreck of a husband. As a pet owner he's gotten two dogs and a parakeet killed. Some turtles and two other dogs died without his help." It can sometimes be hard to tell if this is a diagnosis or a boast.
However ugly these guys are, Shepard's own prose never fails to be devastatingly handsome, accreting hard particles of technical description and tough-mouthed man-talk before reaching a lyrical climax that tends to involve the whiteout of real or imagined death. And if Shepard's thematic soundtrack can rumble a bit portentously at times, the subtly pinging connections between the stories keep the reader from wandering out for more popcorn before the next mini-feature starts. The scientist-narrator of "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," tracking potential avalanches high in the Swiss Alps, could almost be the father of the particle physicist in "Low Hanging Fruit," measuring the massive forces lately unleashed beneath those same mountains at the Large Hadron Collider. The traumatized Iraq war vet of "Boys Town," who retreats to his weapons cache in the Michigan woods after making an ill-advised and possibly actionable romantic advance on a neighborhood woman, is a grown-up version of the alienated school-shooter of "Project X." But he would also fit right in in the story that follows "Boys Town" here, about a 15th-century peasant boy who spent his youth in service to Gilles de Rai, a former comrade-in-arms of Joan of Arc who spent his golden years raping and dismembering children.
And what about the women and children? For all Shepard's wild changes in elevation, nearly every story here features a wife or girlfriend waiting patiently (or not) at sea level with the kids, at least until the floods send them scrambling for higher ground. The ladies tend to get the sardonic lines—"All this end-of-the-world stuff apparently cheers me up," remarks the engineer's wife in "The Netherlands Lives With Water"—and certainly most of the tears, at least when they aren't way past the point of bothering to shed them. In "Poland Is Watching," a mountaineer's wife weeps for a brother who died years ago on a climbing expedition, though the mountaineer himself only has time to discuss "what had happened since I was gone, and where I was going next."
But in these stories, as in "Godzilla," the true sadness belongs to the monster, which on Planet Shepard may just be another name for a man, a once-majestic beast whose shrieks and footfalls now sound ridiculous, if they sound at all. "I love those shots of the city after the monster's gone," one of Tsuburaya's collaborators tells him in the Godzilla story. "All that emptiness, like a no-man's land in which eloquence and silence are joined." For all their geographical and historical specificity, Shepard's stories end with the protagonist standing alone in the same denuded inner blast zone. On the last page of Project X, Shepard's teenage shooter gazes at the wreckage of his life, feeling like "a house burning down from the inside out." The men in this collection would probably say they know the feeling.
Jennifer Schuessler is an editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Photograph by Michael Lionstar.