Pushcart XLII/BASS 2017: Jim Shepard, “Telemachus” from Zoetrope, 20:1

Stained glass by Betsy Bird

Stained glass by Betsy Bird

To commemorate Easter Sunday, the captain has spread word of a ship–wide contest for the best news of 1942, the winner to receive a double tot of rum each evening for a week. The contestants have their work cut out for them. Singapore has fallen. The Prince of Wales and the Repulse have been sunk. The Dutch East Indies have fallen. Burma is in a state of collapse. Darwin has been so severely bombed it had to be abandoned as a naval base. The only combatants in the entire Indian Ocean standing between the Japanese Navy and a linkup with the Germans, who are currently having their way in Russia and North Africa, seem to be us. And one Dutch gunboat we came across a week ago with a spirited crew and a crippled rudder.
We are the Telemachus, as our first lieutenant reminds us each morning on the voice–pipe: a T–class submarine—not so grand as a U, but not so dismal as an S. Most of us have served on S’s and are grateful for the difference, even as we register the inferiority of our own boat to every other nation’s. The Royal Navy leads the world in battleships and cruisers, we like to say, and trails the Belgians in submarine design.

Some of us might find it hard to remember, but there were many hopeless moments in WWII, and this was one of them. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, with the destruction of a big portion of the American naval fleet, isn’t even mentioned because the focus is on Great Britain, but add that to the list, and these were dark days, especially for the British, who saw their empire disappearing, as well as their homeland at risk. When I get into a funk these days, when it seems like Democracy and all the promise of America has been irrevocably lost to a gang of amoral thieves determined to roll back, not just to the 50s or even to the 1850s but to the 1150s, I remember how hopeless WWII once looked. And yet we survived.

Little did the crew of the Telemachus realize that while the Empire was indeed gone, Great Britain would survive – with less grandeur than before, but perhaps a necessary taking-down. But enough navel-gazing; on with the naval-gazing.

Shepard has a way of constructing detailed pieces of reality that sometimes seem to go off into hyperbole, whether it’s an expedition across the Australian desert or up Mount Everest or a mission on a wartime submarine. Usually there’s a personal story embedded within, here with our very young and introverted narrator “The Monk” dealing with his illicit but persistent attraction to cousin Margery.

But it’s a long story, and I got pretty bogged down in the details. I can do submarine stories – I re-read Wouk’s War & Remembrance often and have no trouble with Briny’s adventures under the sea – but I couldn’t find a track to follow here, whether it’s recounting old tales or current tensions. The gist of it is: The food’s awful, it’s cramped and stinky, and they figure they’re gonna die.

The last paragraph, a single long sentence, is gorgeous. The sub has finally come upon a target for their last torpedos, and they fire, knowing this will reveal their location and most likely doom them to the return fire of a surviving enemy ship:

And the image of what I wish I could have put into a letter for my cousin at once appears to me, from the only other time I was allowed at the periscope, along with the rest of the crew, when on a rough day near a reef in a breaking sea we found the spectacle of porpoises on our track above us, leaping through the avalanches of foam and froth six or seven at a time, maneuvering within our field of vision and then surging clean out of the water and reentering smoothly with trailing plumes of white bubbles, all of them, flowing together, each a celebration of what the others could be, until finally it seemed as if hundreds had passed us, and in their kinship and coordination had then vanished into the impenetrable green beyond our reach.

It’s a lovely not-that-ambiguous close, and I went back and gave the story another try; but again I was overwhelmed by the detail, which is I recognize the very strength of the story. I’m wondering if I should take a break – I’ve been struggling with the past few stories – but there are only a couple of stories left. And besides, I was really looking forward to this one, first because I often like Jim Shepard, and second because I was hoping my recent study of the Odyssey would come in handy given the title.

The relevance of the name of the ship, as stated in the story, is its Greek meaning, “far from war”, rather than the quest Odysseus’ son took to find out the truth about his father’s role in the Trojan War, a compressed and reverse parallel to Odysseus’ trip home (and a rather clever way for the storyteller to include events relevant to the father’s problems). But towards the end of the story, Monk daydreams about a letter he could write his cousin: “how some part of me anticipated the Pacific as if a way to discover my father’s fate.” That’s pretty on-point, and, as his father was on a cargo ship that went missing, somewhat likely. Both the Odyssean Telemachus and our Monk grow up in their respective stories – though only Telemachus gets the chance to do something with his newly acquired wisdom.

In his Contributor Note, Shepard cites several inspirations, among others, his affection for “the combination of intrepidness and lunacy” he’s always found in British military history. Then he says something I can’t quite place:

And then my wife, Karen, and I were talking about the kind of guy who likes to blunder through the world pretending that he doesn’t know things and who needs to be reminded every so often that his igrnorance is causing other people pain, and suddenly I had my protagonist.

I recognize Monk’s longstanding feeling of being worthless, of having no abilities except for running, and it made a sort of perverse sense to me that he’d end up on a submarine where running is impossible. But I’m not sure what ignorance is causing people pain. The only clue I find is the boat’s doctor chiding him for not helping out a new crewman, but I suspect it rather has something to do with his cousin, I’m just not sure what.

This story is part of Shepard’s collection The World To Come (the title story is a One Story offering from 2012, when I was still subscribed to One Story), and despite, or maybe because of, the overwhelming detail of this story, I’m tempted to read it. He has a way with words, and a way with historical fiction that reveals humanity as it reflects on the present.

2 responses to “Pushcart XLII/BASS 2017: Jim Shepard, “Telemachus” from Zoetrope, 20:1

  1. I don’t blame you for having trouble coming up with something to say to every story. I’ve been feeling that way just about commenting on your write-ups of them. I’ve felt I have very little to offer.

    I wondered, also, at what it is he’s pretending not to know that is hurting others, since his cousin accuses him of this feigned ignorance. Is he supposed to be able to compare the brutality and inhumanity of what a submarine does to what the dolphins do? And then do what, be a conscientious objector? I don’t know what he’s supposed to know, either. Maybe we’re supposed to actually side with the step-father. Maybe his search for a mystical father nobody can remember is misguided. Maybe his step-father was right, and the boy needs to get his head out of his ass?

    The best I can come up with is this: the Monk fancies himself a type of Telemachus, looking for his father, but, as the captain tells him, “Telemachus” actually means “far from battle,” i.e. “disengaged.” Monk is like a submarine: he keeps at a distance, even choosing people to love that by definition he cannot have, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t hurt others just by keeping at a distance. Rather, the hurt he causes is all the colder and inhumane for its distance.

    • This is one of those stories that, even though I feel like I missed something, I “liked” – partly because I have a soft spot for Jim Shepard, to be sure, but also because I feel there’s something beyond my vision that’s worth working for.

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