Book by JIM SHEPARD
Sometimes, after finishing a particularly impactful book, I experience a partial paralysis. It’s a sort of ecstatic exhaustion, I think; I’ve felt similarly after long, intense runs. If there is a window nearby, I’ll stare out it without really noticing anything in particular. If my chair is capable of rocking, I’ll do so steadily and rhythmically to the point where people sitting nearby will clear their throats in my general direction. I will occasionally mutter an expletive over and over under my breath. I don’t deny that all this is sort of dramatic. In my own defense, it doesn’t happen that often, and it requires a fairly momentous reading experience. Again, this happens usually after finishing a book. It seems significant, then, that I felt emotionally KO-ed after nearly every story in Jim Shepard’s new collection of short fiction, You Think That’s Bad. The equivalent would perhaps be getting picked up by the same girl eleven times in a row despite having your heart broken every single time. And being ready to be picked up again, if she ever comes back.
You Think That’s Bad is about the edges of what we know, about how the individual struggles to fit into communities and relationships (which, one might argue, are mini-communities) without compromising self. And about how these are actually the same thing: the book’s title, which is essentially the message that all one-up stories must begin with, is a reminder that our selves are also our limits. Beyond our selves lies something we can’t define—to do so would be to put it in terms of “self”—except maybe to say that it is immense. It is probably also worth saying that our reaction to this immense “beyondness,” when we’re forced to face it, is terror, despair, astonishment—it is, as Salinger put it, a “goddamn phenomenal world.”
In nearly every story in You Think That’s Bad, characters struggle with the unknown both in their relationships and in their physical worlds. “Happy with Crocodiles” braids the narrative of a young National Guardsman stationed in New Guinea during World War II with a romance he had before he became a recruit. Something that makes You Think That’s Bad stand out from so many works of Postmodern/There-Is-No-Such-Thing-As-Objective-Truth/Can-We-Really-Ever-Know-Anything fiction is that it shows, again and again, devastatingly, that limited comprehension is only half of our struggle with reality. We’re also shaped—passive voice entirely intentional—by a relentless barrage of events beyond our control:
“The guy next to me spat on the back fender just to watch it sizzle…we’d been sitting through this for two weeks and were pretty much wiped out to a man…Almost nothing was running because the lubricating oils ran off or evaporated. We’d lost half our water when the heat dissolved the jerry cans’ enamel lining. Two unshaded shells farther down the trail exploded…the midday sun raised blisters on an arm in ten minutes. One of the medics timed it. Everybody lost so much fluid and salt that we had ice-pick headaches or down-on-all-fours dry heaves and cramping. Turning your head wasn’t worth the effort. Pickets got confused and shot at anything. A few facing the afternoon sun on the water went snowblind from the glare and didn’t bother to report it until relieved.”
Later, after the soldiers have been ordered into the jungle toward a Japanese position, “clouds [come] over and [turn] black,” and Shepard’s first person narrator matter-of-factly tells us, “it [rains] for three straight weeks.” He seems no more moved when, “four days into it, our clothes started rotting. Whatever we carried in waterproof bags was soaked. Whatever we carried in watertight containers was mildewed…Field telephones corroded. Insulating material rotted. Batteries ruptured and leaked. Rifle cartridges rusted.” After the three weeks of rain are over, the troops have “one day when it [is] cloudy and then thirty-six more days of rain. Everybody was covered with rashes, sores, blisters, bubbles, boils, and bites…the skin under married guys’ rings got infected with fungus.”
The narrator’s lone source of relief during the campaign is a fellow soldier, Leo, to whom he confides his anxiety about Linda, the girl he pursues in the other half of “Happy with Crocodiles.” His companionship with Leo is one of necessity more than friendship. When the narrator receives a letter that suggests Linda has been sleeping with his brother, Leo laughs, accuses the narrator of being jealous, and says, “I’ve seen knotholes better-lookin’ than [you].” Although there is little compassion in their relationship, there is something hopeful in the narrator’s desire for Leo’s affection and guidance.
A similarly pathetic hope exists in the story of the narrator’s affection for Linda. Each time he sees her, she asks after his brother—including once immediately after she’s removed his pants. When the narrator asks how often she sees his brother, she answers, “Every single minute of every single day.” The situation becomes even more haunting when we meet Linda’s brother, Glenn, whose presence seems just as sexually threatening as the narrator’s brother. That the narrator can say he feels lucky to be with Linda despite the presence of so much tangible viciousness is either absurdly stubborn or starkly hopeful. “I do,” he reassures himself while lying in bed. “I do,” he thinks, “every miserable night on the troop ship, and in the slit trenches, and listening to Leo talking to himself as soon as he thought I’d fallen asleep.” In both narratives, the narrator is “shocked to feel the ugliness [he feels] every single day…especially with those [he] cherish[es] most.”
And though “[those we cherish most]” are integral parts of the stories in You Think That’s Bad, even these relationships seem full of unmapped territory. “Poland is Watching,” like “Happy with Crocodiles,” also unfolds in two narratives, the first of which is about a group of Polish mountaineers attempting to summit Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, in winter:
“We haven’t spoken in three days and haven’t stretched out in two, and that’s forty-four hours we’ve been braced back to back, holding our tent poles…They’re supposed to be titanium but at Camp 3 they went off like rifle shots in the night and these are jerry-rigged spares. The winds are topping 130 kilometers an hour. The temperature has dropped to 49 below. We’re wearing three layers of fleece, one of Gore-Tex, down bodysuits, insulated climbing shells…with gloves inside gloves inside mittens. I’ve been unable to interrupt the clatter of my teeth.”
The story’s second half is the history of the narrator’s relationship with his wife, Agnieszka, whose love for him is rivaled only by her growing anger over his hobby. She “never tires of pointing out [that he’s] not the only [one] who [has] sacrificed.” He’s “been away more than he’s been home,” “missed [his] daughter’s birthday” five years in a row, and “each time [he returns] with a body so devastated it never fully restore[s] itself. Agnieszka…calls [his] first weeks back the Famine Zombie Weeks.” Her parents, after going over their son-in-law’s finances, ask him how he can justify what he’s doing “if he loves [their] daughter and granddaughter.”
The narrator doesn’t seem to have an answer to this other than to say that as a child, he’d “been such an aberration in inwardness and appearance that [his] classmates had christened [him] the White Crow…Climbing had been [his] way out.” It is no accident that the narrator can’t “justify what he’s doing”—most of Shepard’s characters are unaware of whatever motivation it is that drives their insatiable desires for success, for conquest, for knowledge. We simultaneously watch the narrator struggle to summit Nanga Parbat in increasingly worse conditions, and his marriage deteriorate under the pressure his passion places on his wife. There is a startling parallel between the two; the human condition, as Shepard’s characters experience it, is defined primarily by a constant struggle with and against uncertainty.
The most impressive aspect of You Think That’s Bad—what makes its investigation of our relationship with the unknown so penetrating—is also nearly impossible to recreate in a review. The below summaries represent Shepard’s settings, speakers, and the ambition of his vision the way a frozen chicken parmesan TV dinner represents all Italian food. Stories in You Think That’s Bad take place in 1930, in an unmapped part of the Middle East; in the Netherlands several decades in the future; in the mountains of Switzerland, Japan, and fifteenth-century France. Its narrators include a black ops agent, an engineer faced with a water crisis that threatens the existence of his country, a serial rapist and murderer of children, the Japanese special effects genius responsible for Godzilla, and a researcher studying avalanches. Yet Shepard’s writing never feels reductive. This isn’t contemporary social criticism; Shepard’s interested in something much larger. At the risk of making You Think That’s Bad sound like the public service announcement to end all public service announcements, this is a book that directs our attention toward the largest and most impactful factor of the human experience—that “the reality [we] think [we] observe doesn’t have much to do with the reality that’s out there.” Shepard reminds us that “we’ve progressed” only so far in “constructing our connections to this wild and beautiful earth,” that “however much we [think] we know…there [are] always places where our ignorance and bad luck [can] destroy us.”