BASS 2019: Jim Shepard, “Our Day of Grace” from Zoetrope: All-Story #22.1

I was just doing what I usually do – reading bizarrely arcane nonfiction, in this case men’s and women’s Civil War letters – when I was struck by an aspect of them that seemed shockingly relevant to the unhappy position in which we find ourselves today. Even in the very last days of the war, after all of that suffering and all of those losses, letter after letter articulated its conviction that come what may, the South and the North would never reconcile their positions when it came to race, and that the abyss that had opened up in American civic life was never going to close.
….How had we managed as a country to go through five years of agony with more than three-quarters of a million casualties while still ending up having learned so little? That kind of maddeningly self-destructive mulishness has always attracted me as a subject. It’s also starting to seem, dispiritingly, like one of our central characteristics as a country. There followed, then, one of my usual bathysphere descents into more focused arcane reading, afterwhich, I found myself doing what I could to imagine myself inside that recalcitrant Southerner’s position.

Jim Shepard, Contributor Note

I like Jim Shepard. I’ve read two of his story collections, in addition to the stories that crop up regularly in BASS and Pushcart. He has a way of taking a real situation and turning it into an insanely enveloping read, courtesy of details that ramp up the aesthetic reaction to eleven. Most of the time, those aesthetic reactions are uncomfortable, or downright agonizing, as when a teenager plays high-stakes football, or an explorer crosses a desert. And there’s always a crucial decision in there somewhere, something that hits home. That’s why I have to say that in general I far prefer having read a Jim Shepard story, to reading a Jim Shepard story. I actually had to stop reading Like You’d Understand Anyway, a book written to capture the essence of machismo suffering. It was that painful. But they were great stories.

I didn’t have that problem here, at least, not exactly. Although some of the material was grisly – we are talking a bloody, murderous war – these were letters written from a more intimate place. We have William and Lucy, who seem to be young sweethearts (she is just turning 20); and Hattie and C.W., married nine years. We never see a letter written by C.W., we only hear of his actions and comments via William’s letters to Lucy.

Dear Lucy,
It commenced snowing at about dark here, & the wind is as cold as the world’s charity & blowing at a terrible rate. Some of the letters I sent came back. It is very uncertain about letters nowadays, though I suppose it will do no harm to write more & I wanted you to know that I’m still right-side up, though you ought to see me now if you want a hard-looking case. Whiskers have grown out all over & I am ashamed to scan a looking glass.
I’m happy to hear my Georgie stories charm Nellie in particular. Tell her he is so small some of the boys like to call for him to come out of his hat because they can see his legs….He regularly announces to one & all that if he can just get an eye on Lincoln with his musket he’ll make a cathole through him. C.W. says that anyone who can make us smile so much is like loaf bread & fresh beef all the time and that he is always hunting for something to raise his spirits given that he’s forced to sojourn in these low haunts of sorrow.

One of the things that struck me about these letters is how beautifully written they are. Yes, they are fictional, but they are based on real letters, and I don’t doubt Shepard’s ability to mimic reality. Some of that is the old-fashionedness of them, but there’s a level of care here, as though the writers know they will be cherished, so they put heart and soul into each word and phrase. Here is Lucy’s birthday meditation, written a few days before she turns twenty years old:

How long I have lived on this sphere for all the good I have done. I am older than I am wise, and wiser than I am beneficent, and now a woman, decline the unwelcome thought as I might. What good has all my schooling done me? However much I wish to stay careless and free I am a woman not only according to the hunger of my heart but because I can now measure my deficiencies in every respect, from my awkwardness to my self-indulgence to these flashes of temper. Winter’s harvest is nearly ended and I have planted few seeds of improvement in the meantime, so that the future will likely prove barren of the fruits of firm resolve or self-control. At least those we love, most of us, have been preserved and protected, but who knows what will come with another revolution of the year’s wheel.

And Hattie writes to C.W.: “We women are told that our fragility is our strength and protection our right, but this War no longer allows us our frailty, or to assume the presence of guardians that are supposedly our due.”

I have no knowledge of contemporary wartime letters; are they also so beautiful, even in this age of LOL and OMG?

Maybe it’s because the letters are written in what would be the closing months of the war, as the Confederacy’s situation grew more and more hopeless. Words might be chosen with more care when there is the sense that days are short. Also, the Civil War wasn’t just a war; there was a layer of pain on top of the grimness of the battlefield, the sense of a country tearing itself apart from the inside.

Here I have to thank Jake Weber for his knowledge of the historical context (his analysis is wonderful, I highly recommend it): the (fictional) letters are dated in the week before the (very real) Battle of Nashville, which was disastrous for the South. Thus, William and C.W. and Georgie were probably dead by the time these letters were read by Lucy and Hattie, and they probably never got to read the women’s final letters.

The title comes from something C.W. said to William, as he relates it to Lucy:

I have seen more depravity in the last month then in all my days previous. This war is a graveyard for virtues.
…[C.W.] Is very low & says that it requires the faith of a prophet to see any good resulting from so much mayhem, & that perhaps both nations must be destroyed when we consider how much corruption runs riot in high places, & that it may be that our country’s day of grace is passed. but he also says that he will all the same see the thing play out or die in the attempt.

I would wonder if there ever was a day of grace, as the nation was conceived in slavery. There are those say slavery was America’s original sin; I think it was more like a birth defect, scoliosis or a club foot, something that could have been largely corrected in infancy but wasn’t, and thus resulted in a far more traumatic procedure later, a procedure that was less than successful. It took about a dozen years for the hopes of reconstruction to be abandoned, and for the South to reestablish racism as culture. And every fifty years or so, we fight the same war all over again, in a different guise.

What Shepard does here is create sympathy for people who are cold and hungry and lonely and are about to lose their loved ones and/or their lives. That’s not a difficult task, until you consider the context. I find myself unable to really enter this story fully because of current events. That isn’t Shepard’s fault. But I have to say that this time, I enjoyed reading it more than I enjoy having read it.

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.

Jim Shepard: “The World To Come” from One Story #161, 3/4/12

"Yes or No" by Charles Dana Gibson, 1905

"Yes or No" by Charles Dana Gibson, 1905

Sunday 6 May
My mother told me once in a fury when I was just a girl that my father asked nothing of her except that she work the garden, harvest the vegetables, pick and preserve the fruit, supervise the poultry, milk the cows, do the dairy work, manage the cooking and cleaning and mending and doctoring, and help out in the fields where needed. She said she’d appeared in his ledger only when she’d purchased a dress. And how have things changed? Daughters are married off so young that everywhere you look a slender and unwilling girl is being forced to stem a sea of tribulations before she’s even full grown in height.

We think we’ve invented everything. No one has ever known the hardships we’ve had in this time of economic woe; we’ve learned it all about love and relationships and sex and psychology and poetry and letters; when we have it bad, no one has ever had it as bad as us, and when we have it good, it’s a kind of good never before experienced.

Jim Shepard is here to tell us: Not so fast.

I’m not a big fan of diary format for stories, but he uses them frequently, and effectively, on his expeditionary stories. And this story can be seen as an expedition of sorts, into uncharted territories for the unnamed diarist, working with her husband Dyer on their upstate NY farm. We’re privileged to see her weekly writing at least of this period from January through June of 1856. It’s interesting this is the period chosen.

Sunday 1 January
With little pride and less hope, and only occasional and uncertain intervals of happiness, we begin the new year. Let me at least learn to be uncomplaining and unselfish. Let me feel gratitude for what I have : some strength, some sense of purpose, some capacity for progress. Some esteem, some respect, and some affection.
Yet I cannot say I am improved in any manner, unless it be preferable to be wider in sensation and experience.

After the calamity of Nellie’s loss, what calm I enjoy does not derive from the notion of a better world to come.

So we see her recovering from the death of her little daughter. I find it wonderful that this period is more interesting than what has already passed. Then again, given the parade of deaths and other tragedies in this little corner of the world during the six months we read of, death is not an unusual event. I’ve always wondered if parents who expected to lose a child grieved any less than we do today, in a time and place where a child’s death is fairly rare. It seems not.

The diarist and husband Dyer are rather distant, though kindly so. She is resistant to the idea of having another child, so has refused sexual relations. Dyer is rather solicitous: “My heart to him is like a pond to a crane: he wades round it, going in as far as he dares, and then attempts to snatch up what little fish come shoreward from the center.” He brings up plans to make a sleigh, a perennial project that apparently holds some delight for her, though she is less than interested. Theirs is not a marriage of love and compatibility, but of possibility. And if she is overworked and not content, he too has lost some dreams along the way:

As a suitor he was generous but not just, and affectionate but not constant. I was appreciative of his virtues and unconvinced of his suitability, but reminded by my family that more improvement might be in the offing. Because, as they say, it’s a long lane that never turns. And so our hands were joined if our hearts not knitted together.

As a boy he made his own steam engines… I have no doubt he would have been happier if allowed to follow the natural bent of his mind, but forces of circumstance compelled him to take up a business for which he had not the least love.

Tallie, the wife on a neighboring farm, comes to visit in January, and our diarist feels… something: “There seems to be something going on between us that I cannot unravel.” The evolution of their relationship is told masterfully, in slow motion with great detail, beginning in February with a cold, wet foot, after Tallie has broken through the ice into a brook on her way over:

I made her remove her boot and stocking and warmed her toes and ankle in my hands. For some few minutes we sat, just like that. The warmth of the stove and the smell of the applesauce filled our little room, and she closed her eyes and murmured as though speaking to herself how pleasant it was.

The diarist looks forward to her weekly visits (“When she arrived my heart was like a leaf borne over rock by rapidly moving water”) and is distressed when they don’t happen. Eventually, they kiss: “Astonishment and joy. Astonishment and joy. Astonishment and joy.”

That’s about as far as things go, really; there’s no steamy sex scene. But Shepard does a lot with just a couple of episodes of kissing, let me tell you. Especially with the dog keeping watch for Dyer or other intruders. Because this must, of course, remain a secret. Which is why she’s writing it down. I suppose reading someone’s diary was considered unthinkable in that time. Or perhaps Dyer has read the diary. He does seem to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on:

Opened the mudroom door this afternoon to Dyer having returned from the fields, and he said with some asperity that it was pleasant to be greeted by the smile one values above all others only to see that smile vanish because it’s been met by one’s own presence, instead of someone else’s.

Aside from the tortured syntax (it is a diary, after all), this is to me where the real story lies, where the real love is. Is that shocking, for a woman to read a story about an overburdened, artistically imprisoned woman (more on this in a moment) and feel for the man in her life? Or is that part of the design? Because we are introduced shortly to Tallie’s husband, when she invites them over to dinner:

Finney said that no matter what misfortunes arrived at his doorstep, he would seek improvement of his lot with his own industry: he would study his options closely and attend to everything to which he’d believed he had already adequately attended, but with more venehymence….Finney said as an example that when he’d first begun farming he’d been so vexed by his inability to stop his dogs barking one January that during a storm he’d held the animal round the corner of his barn in a gale until it had frozen to death.

In his fiction, Shepard frequently relishes all manner of harshness and brutality while keeping love, passion, and light center stage, and he has done so again. If it wasn’t evident before, in comparison with Finney, Dyer is a prince. Both men seem to know what is going on between the women, and they have very different reactions.

In fact, Finney’s reaction, foreshadowed at that dinner, becomes even more extreme. He and Tallie move away suddenly; she isn’t allowed to say goodbye or even notify her friend of the move. All that’s left behind are a few pieces of furniture and a bloody handprint. The sheriff declines to investigate. Our diarist pines. Dyer waits patiently by. At last, a letter arrives…

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s the diarist’s story. And there’s no denying the hardship women faced in this era. It was handed down to them:

My mother told me more than once that when she prayed, her first object wa to thank God that we’d been spared from harm throughout the day; her second was to ask forgiveness for all of her sins of omission and commission, and her third was to thank Him for not having dealt with her in a manner commensurate to all of the offenses for which she was responsible.

And there’s always the question, what would the diarist, who is quite a writer (including the poem she wrote for her dead child), have been if she’d been able to continue in a setting more conducive to artistic ventures? But also, I can’t help but wonder, what might Dyer have invented had he become a builder, inventor, engineer? Two lives, two talents wasted. It’s also interesting that at one point Tallie shows the diarist her own poetry; it’s bad, really bad, and the diarist “could not support the rhyme,” which is a moment I love.

While on one level it’s the story of a woman awakening one spring, it’s a lot more than that. And when I read Shepard’s One Story Q&A on why he chose to use diary format, I was surprised by this:

I wanted to catch if I could the moment-to-moment and day-to-day nature of 19th century farming lives, as well as how seasonally based those lives were: the importance of the weather, and their meals, and of course the drudgery. But the journal nature of the story also seemed crucial when it came to capturing all of the little ways in which the narrator has let her Tallie down.

I don’t understand at all how she has let Tallie down. I’ve been thinking about it for several days now, and I’ve re-read the story several times, and I still don’t understand. Is he being facetious – that the woman is so used to taking the blame for everything, she will find herself to blame for this as well? I think this will require re-reading at a future point, to see what I have missed. My favorite kind of story, one that evolves over time.

[addendum: A nice addition to Best American Short Stories 2013]

Jim Shepard – You Think That’s Bad: Stories

Book Cover Image

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.

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.

BASS 2010: Jim Shepard, “The Netherlands Lives With Water”

Pakistani appeal poster for the 1953 Dutch flood victims (Radio Netherlands)

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.