Jim Shepard – Like You’d Understand Anyway: Stories

Jacket Design, Jason Booher

I think what connects both bully and bullied for me is the fear of human weakness. I’m also fascinated by the ways in which males, to generalize, act out their impulses and their aggressions on each others’ bodies—it seems both compelling in and of itself and useful for something like fiction, which needs to dramatize and make concrete human conflict. What continues to remain mysterious to me about boyhood or adolescence and its counterparts of predator and prey is the way boys are so superb at inhabiting both roles, sometimes simultaneously, and doing so while a) being aware they’re doing so and b) being only partially formed as individuals, and so also aware that they’re inadequate to the task of sorting through all of this. In other words, the way they feel they may have more responsibility than power or control—and the way they find themselves drawn into complicity with the more powerful.

This, from Shepard’s Loggernaut interview, might’ve scared me off. I’ve been very sensitive to bullying lately, partly because the issue has become so public, and partly because of events I’ve witnessed. I had to abandon this book a bit more than halfway through. I just couldn’t take it any more. I was dreading reading the next story.

The drawing on the cover is spectacular, and perfectly sums up the work inside. Take a very close look at it.

I chose to read this book because I so enjoyed “The Netherlands Lives With Water” from Tin House, included in Shepard’s new collection, You Think That’s Bad but it has many holds on it at the library so I tried this instead. I think that was not the wisest move.

“The Zero Meter Diving Team”

Here’s what it’s like to bear up under the burden of so much guilt: everywhere you drag yourself you leave a trail. Late at night, you gaze back and view an upsetting record of where you’ve been.

Think Russia, 1980’s. Boris, Mikhail, Petya. Brothers, in that order. Petya is a half-brother, frequently reminded of that. “So there was a murderousness to our play.” Oh, yes. There’s a pecking order and a military precision (when they are beaten with a switch, Boris gets four lashes, Mikhail gets three then Boris must administer the fourth, and Petya gets three and Mikhail must give the fourth. It’s a science.) and hierarchy (Petya must give his potatoes to Mikhail) to the family.

Because, you see, our schools directed all their efforts to inculcate industriousness (somewhat successfully), obedience (fairly successfully), and toadyism (very successfully). Each graduation produced a new crop of little yes-people. Our children learned criticism from their families, and from the street.

Dad is Director of the Physico-Energy institute; Boris is Chief Engineer of the Department of Nuclear Energy; Mikhail is Chief Turbine Engineer at the power plant and up and comer. Petya takes odd jobs as they are handed to him; he truly lives up to expectations. Communist Russian, about to teeter and fall, is a risky place to have an opinion. Or to say, “Hey, this here nuclear reactor isn’t safe, and we should do something about it.” And as you’d expect from a country that pretends nothing’s wrong, Chernobyl happens.

This isn’t really a story about Chernobyl, but take this horrifying scene: the dosimeters are scaled to read 3.6 roentgens per hour, and they all were off the scale immediately, but when asked what the dosage was, the official report was, 3.6 roentgens per hour. The debris scattered around the plant and vaporized in the steam plume generated 20,000 roentgens per hour. But the official word was 3.6. Makes you wonder what’s really happening in Japan. But as I said, that is not the story here. Mikhail was on duty. Petya was fishing downstream. Boris goes to visit them in the hospital. And like that.

Whenever I see anything Russian that involves brothers, I think Dostoyevsky, and he’s not my strength to put it mildly. But there’s enough going on in this family to go back to Tolstoy’s unhappy families. Except I think a lot of families in Texas, in Detroit, in LA are pretty much unhappy in the same way. Fortunately, our nuclear reactors seem to be a little better run. At least most of the time.

Shepard says of this story: “I was interested in the way in which the country’s mode of evading and trying to diffuse responsibility – as well as its way of just closing its eyes and wishing the whole problem would go away (a dilemma that has some resonance for us today, to say the least) – plays out on the microcosmic level, too, within family dynamics.” So no one ever says, “I won’t whip my brother” or “Let Petya eat his own potato” or “These shortcuts we’re taking with these nuclear reactors are going to bite us in the butt some day, and Mikhail will end up dying with a nuclear tan and Petya will bleed from his gut for a few weeks and be an invalid forever.” And Petya will look for sympathy while Boris looks for admiration. Just another unhappy family. In spite of the familial bullying, I enjoyed it.

“Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian”

My brother and I (he’s five years older) have always been close, and separate, and that’s been a great source of emotional complexity and intensity in my psychic life. One of the great traumas in my family’s experience (and my family’s been mostly very lucky in that regard) was his institutionalization when he was about 16. It was an event that crystallized for me concrete forms for the kinds of issues—how much should one help? what constitutes help?—that always swirl around crucial family relationships.

Jim Shepard Interview.

In this story, an abusive father teaches his kids to be abusive men. Mother co-conspires. One boy might turn out ok, the other already was institutionalized (whatever that means – hospital? Jail?) once. The last lines of this very short story are priceless. But it’s hard to read.

“Hadrian’s Wall”

That’s been Rome’s genius all along: turning brother against brother and father against son. Since what could have been easier than that?

Another runt-of-the-litter gets himself ridiculed and nearly killed while Dad aches to relive his glory days as a conqueror. See, it’s been going on since the Dark Ages. But I’m getting tired of reading about it in story after story.

“Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak”

Friday Night Lights (the movie) for the literati – tough-guy football plus who’s-my-daddy. It was especially scary to me as I’d just seen a Frontline or Independent Lens about one of the Texas football teams that lost a player to heat stroke a couple of summers ago. This was the point at which I started to think about abandoning this book. I just can’t take all the pummelling – the emotional kind. Or the point of view that one is weak if one does not choose to endure dangerous pain for the sake of… a football game.

“Ancestral Legacies”

Then we get to Nazi scientists researching the presence of Aryans in Tibet, but they’re really looking forYeti. It’s pretty amazing how far one will cling to one’s beliefs even when confronted with fear, death, and evidence to the contrary.

“Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay”

What makes us threaten the things we want most? What makes us so devoted to the comfort of the inadvertent? What makes us unwilling to gamble on the noncataclysmic?

This was of special interest to me since I just happened to have recently read “Snow Men” from a year-old One Story (funny how that happened, isn’t it – truly a coincidence, I grabbed an issue at random for in transit reading matierial) and learned a bit about Lituya Bay, the Tlingit, and the La Perouse expedition. Of course, that was in the 18th century, and this story is set in the current day with references to the earthquake and tidal wave of 1958. It’s really about a man unable to communicate with his wife, however, which makes it all the more beautiful. He is about to have a vasectomy while she wants to have another baby, and he is trying in every way except the most effective one to tell her. And of course while both possess the means to make a unilateral decision, he is the one who is going forth with it. This story made me glad I didn’t abandon the book.

“The First South Central Australian Expedition”

I read this with the wrong frame of mind. Then I went looking for some help in comments from others, and found, on Live Journal: “the list of horrible diseases, masochistic proverbs, and impossibly high temperatures got to be actually funny…” and I realized I needed to see it as a comedy. Because it’s very similar to “Ancestral Legacies” in that a stubborn, deluded fool keeps going because he’s so sure he’s right, in this case not through frozen wasteland but through impossible desert, for months and months, and yes, it did become absurd.

I’m giving up on this book. I just can’t take it any more. I’m going to try You Think That’s Bad at some future point, because I did so enjoy “The Netherlands Lives With Water“. And I do love the situational settings of these stories; the work that goes into them is amazing. I just wish men weren’t so bent on destroying their sons, brothers, fathers all the time. After reading these stories, I have to take a deep breath and remember that there are men – fathers, brothers, husbands – in the world who are capable of kindness and gentleness.

4 responses to “Jim Shepard – Like You’d Understand Anyway: Stories

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