I don’t remember requesting this book from my library, though obviously I did since it arrived a couple of weeks ago. It was out when I looked for it at my library after reading and enjoying “The Netherlands Lives With Water” in BASS 2010, so I checked out Like You’d Understand Anyway which didn’t go over so well (I was overwhelmed by male aggression and bullying). I must’ve thought tales of disaster would work better.
I so want to love Jim Shepard. I like his fondness for researching arcane historical events, he throws phrases in that gut-punch me at just the right second, and I just admire someone who can do what he does, combine an emotionally wrenching relationship with an impending flood. He has this ability to really get into someone’s head and become them on the page, while he’s writing about history or science. It’s something I admire tremendously. I’m not quite at the love stage yet, though I’m closer now, having read this book, than I was when I put down the last one.
“Minotaur” (originally published in Playboy): I would be a very bad spy. I can’t keep a secret. It isn’t that I particularly want to blabber sensitive information, though you know how it is – how is anyone going to know you’ve been trusted with a secret unless you tell them? But I just have this impulse to blurt out whatever crosses my mind in the interests of including all possible information anyone might want on the topic at hand. It’s why so many of my posts are so long. TMI, without the ewww factor. So I’m sympathetic with the narrator here. He works in the black world – a super-top-secret defense program even he doesn’t know that much about. His best friend, Kenny, works in a similar program. But Kenny got rerouted a few years ago, left without even leaving a Post-it, because that’s how the black world works. They run into each other at a restaurant while the narrator (unidentified first person, doesn’t bother me until I try to talk about the story) is out with his wife Carla. Kenny and his girlfriend Celina walk in. There’s a lot of light-hearted banter. Kenny used to be in a program with a patch that read, NOYFB (None of Your Fucking Business) but now his patch reads Gustatus Similis Pullus (Tastes Like Chicken). I love this. I want to use it in a story sometime. Alas, Kenny lets it slip that the narrator has shared a marital secret with him. Not a bad secret, just one of those intimacies couples share when they’re nose to nose: she named her miscarried baby, and the baby she gave away when she was seventeen, “Little Jimmy.” Kenny mentions he views the people he is working to destroy as Little Jimmies. For people who are conditioned to keep secrets, it was a major slip, and the light-heartedness goes out of the evening as betrayal sets in. I enjoyed this; I suspect I might enjoy it more if I were more up on the Minotaur mythology, but I’m a little hazy there. Bull, labyrinth, that’s about it. I should remedy that.
“The Track of the Assassins” was originally published in Zoetrope:All Story and covers the real-life journey of Freya Stark into Iran in 1930. Here is my question: how can you write a fictional story about a real person – particularly a person who wrote a book about exactly the trip you’re fictionalizing? Freya Stark isn’t some distant historical personage like one of the Pharoahs or John the Baptist, someone about whom we have only sketchy information with plenty of blanks to be filled in. She wrote a book about her trip to the Valley of the Assassins (as well as many other travels). Of course, she (presumably; I haven’t read it) didn’t weave in the story of her recently deceased sister, but still, it just doesn’t seem right. There’s a terrifying scene that covers both story lines: “…I began to understand why two years earlier the Lurs, when fleeing a forced resettlement, had massacred their own families to unburden themselves for the march.”
“Happy with Crocodiles”, available online from The American Scholar, is set in WWII in the jungle of New Guinea. The voice – young, male, not terribly bright – feels very authentic. The girl back home liked his brother more, he’s worried about a letter from her denying she saw his brother when his brother already told him about it. She’s lying, why? Then he’s slogging through jungle and watching people die, but still goes back to thinking about Linda. I found it an unpleasant read, kept brushing at imaginary creepie crawlies (the description of the hot, humid jungle is very strong) but I didn’t care in the least about Linda. There’s an amazing scene with Dad: “Finally we couldn’t stand how he was looking at us. My brother left first, but I hung around for a minute, to see if it was just my brother or the both of us he hated.” Which spells out the relationship – brother is always getting things first. So our narrator ends up being killed, along with buddy Leo and most of his platoon, in New Guinea: “Like the Japs who’d crouch over Leo and me. When they rolled us over they’d be shocked to see what we’d come to. Shocked to see what they’d done. Shocked to feel the ugliness we felt every single day, even with those – especially with those – we cherished the most.” It’s every kid’s self-funeral fantasy: You’ll be sorry, Dad and Brother and Linda, when I’m gone. And we’re sad because, just like the Japanese soldiers won’t be shocked, neither will Dad or Brother or Linda.
“Your Fate Hurtles Down At You” concerns a group of avalanche researchers in the Alps. The narrator describes how he perhaps started an avalanche that killed his brother Willi. Willi’s girl, Ruth, was unbeknownst to anyone, pregnant at the time, and is now living near where the team is researching. It’s one of my favorite stories in this collection, because the historical and scientific story feels so integrated with the personal backstory. There’s the familiar sibling rivalry over a girl that was present in the last story. Avalanches are mysterious things; the team is trying to discover why an avalanche might occur in conditions that did not cause one before, just as our narrator tries to discover what made Ruth love Willi and not him. And why his mother would take afternoon walks with Willi and not him. I probably like it more because I’m less freaked out by cold and snow than I am by heat and humidity. And, oh, by the way, the story’s present is 1939 Switzerland. Nothing avalanch-like about that period of time, huh? There’s a vimeo animated trailer for this story which I can’t play, but it seems to be very popular. I was happy to see this story is in the 2011 PEN/O.Henry Prize collection I’ll be reading shortly.
“Low-Hanging Fruit” is very short and less a story than a scene: a particle physicist goes into great detail about the intricacies of his work (some of which I actually have heard of; I just saw a documentary on the CERN large hadron particle collider and I actually remember the Higgs bosun as the elusive particle that explains the Standard Model of physics) but glances by the state of his family, which is that his wife miscarried, he was not very supportive, and he will not try again. To me, the low-hanging fruit, the “easy question” is dealing with particle physics, which maybe two hundred people in the world understand, rather than in dealing with his wife. I loved this.
“Gojira, King of the Monsters” is, again, about a man who would rather deal with work than his family, and another fictionalization of a real person. I’m not sure I understand how this can be done; it seems to me it’s more creative non-fiction, and if his attitude towards his family is being fictionalized, well, that’s just not nice. Eiji Tsuburaya was the premiere art director during the Japanese Monster years, and created Gorija who became Godzilla when he crossed the Pacific. Tsuburaya was born to a sixteen-year-old girl who died at nineteen. His father ran a large general store, so he was raised by his grandmother Natsu and his uncle Inchiro, though Ichiro was so close in age he was more like an older brother, hence the name Eiji, “second son.” He leaves home to work in movies. His father comes to see him in Tokyo in 1923, on the day of the earthquake, and is killed. There’s a lot of great stuff here, including the impact of Hiroshima on Japanese film, and how the film was absurdly Americanized to eliminate the anti-nuclear theme – and the addition of Raymond Burr, an American reporter trapped in Tokyo, “to give Western audiences someone for whom to care.” This is a long story, but it’s fascinating.
“Boys Town” annoyed me terribly, mostly because the narrator is a passive-aggressive ass who’s never to blame for anything. Reminds me of my ex, actually. Everything goes wrong for this guy, who at 39 lives with his mother. He has an ex-wife and child somewhere. He’s moving in on another woman, but things go wrong and he ends up toting his gun. Throughout he remembers watching the movie Boys Town, which I don’t remember. I really hated the narrator. I don’t even want to write about him. One of Shepard’s abilities is to inhabit a voice, and he inhabits this one to the point where I want to punch someone. It’s ironic that a measure of how well Shepard did his job is that I hated it. Go figure that out. Addendum: this story is included in 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories.
“Classical Scenes of Farewell” is one of those horrific things you half-read, trying not to dwell on the depictions of rape and torture. It’s the basically historical confession of Etienne Corillaut, aka Poitou, teenage assistant to Gilles de Rais, knight of Joan of Arc turned child torturer. The subject, as you might expect, is guilt; falling short. A lot of it is beautiful; the voice is not at all that of a medieval kid, but it’s spellbinding as he tells his tale. But I read it always afraid of what might be in the next paragraph.
“Poland is Watching” is another wacky-expedition tale. Blogger Justin Levine reported from an April 2011 reading at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn: “’Why do you enjoy writing about doomed expeditions?’ someone, ostensibly a former student, asked. Shepard’s answer boiled down to one word: perversity. He was fascinated by outcasts embarking on quixotic journeys, by those who continually fucked up and by those whose actions were beyond their control. The narrator here is clearly out of control. He loves his wife, his daughter. But he loves the mountains more. And it isn’t enough to climb Everest and K2 and all those places; he has to climb them in the winter. Supposedly this is a Polish thing. Some of the climbers have lost fingers, toes, whatever. They spend months after each climb recuperating, and are never really healthy. But they’re always champing at the bit to go back. And their wives, the narrator’s wife in particular, waits at home. The story was originally published in The Atlantic; because Shepard edited the Fall 2010 edition of Ploughshares, they’ve uploaded videos on YouTube of his reading this story in three parts. Total time, about 35 minutes. I haven’t viewed them, so if there’s something amiss, please let me know.