It’s the catastrophe for which the Dutch have been planning for fifty years. Or really for as long as we’ve existed: we had cooperative water management before we had a state. The one created the other: either we pulled together as a collective or got swept away as individuals.
As I read this story, set in an imagined Rotterdam 25 years from now, I thought, now, if the US were threatened by water, we’d have imposed global warning restrictions on the entire world by now. Except, you know what? New Orleans; the Outer Banks; Tampa; we are threatened by water, and every time a hurricane rolls by, we go into a tizzy, and then relax because, after all, it wasn’t the French Quarter of New Orleans that was submerged up to the rooftops. And we convince ourselves this isn’t going to happen anyway, it’s all a myth.
It was a great distraction to the story here.
The story, let me say, is marvelous. It goes along those lines, in fact: there’s a catastrophe coming, everyone’s known it’s coming, and here it is, hey, what’s going on? There are parallel catastrophes as there usually are in literary fiction: the literal one of Rotterdam and the more figurative catastrophe of marital collapse, and a secondary catastrophe of an aging mother whose need for more care has been ignored too long. Everyone who has any relationship with another person – that is, all of us – is facing a future catastrophe, as all relationships end one way or another. All stories are told with precision and care. The history of the Netherlands is detailed, as well as the lives of these fictional characters. Now, I suppose there’s someone somewhere who’d already written out the historical and technical chronology here, from a dike collapsing on Christmas of 1717, to the Saint Felix flood, the All Saints Flood, the 1953 flood, all the waterways and maneuvers to manage impending disaster. But I suspect a lot of research went into this, and a lot of winnowing out a small percentage of the information for inclusion into this story. I think of my friend Marko (hi Marko!) who is researching the Mongols and discovering all manner of interesting things about them, and I see him as another Jim Shepard, or another Anthony Doerr, all patiently researching information to include small bits into a fictional story that will sweep over the reader more forcefully than any academic text.
In the Contributor’s Notes, the author describes how McSweeney’s wanted a story about some world city 25 years in the future, and sweetened the pot by offering a trip to the city chosen. He describes how helpful the Dutch were, in providing information, escorting him to various locations: “I kept reminding everyone, somewhat meekly, that I was only writing a short story for a magazine called McSweeney’s, and not a cover article for The New York Times Magazine, but they all seemed unfazed. I was a writer who shared their interests, and was in need of help. So they helped. It was one of those moments when I’ve been acutely aware that I wasn’t in the United States.” Hmmm. I’m not so sure I agree with this assessment, but I can see what he means.
This story is included in Shephard’s latest collection, You Think That’s Bad, eleven stories about catastrophe. Sounds like a fun read. I have it on order at the library – there are two holds ahead of me. Catastrophe is quite popular.
(addendum: You Think That’s Bad read and blogged here.