Jim Shepard, author of the National Book Award finalist collection, “Love and Hydrogen,” specializes in a certain kind of short story. It is not the “slice of life fiction” so predominant on the literary landscape today. Instead, he writes character-driven stories set in exotic terrains, obscure historical moments, and highly specialized occupations. It’s a niche that has landed him acclaim for each of his previous three collections of stories. The eleven short stories in You Think That’s Bad, in all their wild and imaginative variance, again take up that predilection for richly imagined landscapes and situations, and offer compelling glimpses into the price of human folly, vice, and weakness.
Jim Shepard’s stories are always about something in a very real way. That is, they are grounded, however loosely, in a certain topic. “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” follows a lovelorn and grief-stricken avalanche researcher in late-1930s Europe; “Happy with Crocodiles” journeys with a young man to the Pacific theater, in preparation for rain-soaked combat with the Japanese; “The Track of the Assassins” finds us, with the female explorer, crossing dangerous frontiers in central Asia; a particle physicist at the Large Hadron Collider ruminates on “that saving thing” in “Low-Hanging Fruit.” Shepard is a professed avid researcher, and the richly detailed worlds here are never short of engrossing (the book’s Acknowledgments page offers a healthy reading list on each story’s subject). The short story “Love and Hydrogen” answered at least one question very basic about working on the Hindenberg: What was it like? You Think That’s Bad finds similarly interesting questions to answer. What was it like to be the first ascenders of a mountain? What lengths might a country, existing far below sea level, have to go to in order to hold back the sea? How does a firestorm develop, and what—yes, it’s horrible—would it be like to be stuck in one? A certain kind of person drawn to science, to history, to geography, to the obscure, can find those answers neatly etched out in this collection. These are literary dioramas, in a way. Another way of saying it is that Shepard writes literary fiction for nerds.
What Shepard excels at, and what separates him from a speculative writer or a fantasist, is his ability to draw out the human story in each of these settings. The characters in You Think That’s Bad are trapped, hemmed in, and wholly obsessed by their circumstances. Tsuburaya, the director of “Gojira, King of the Monsters,” is a workaholic who is badly distanced from his family. The monster epic he’s striving to complete has its origins in the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Tsuburaya’s personal need to carry off the picture—with its daunting demand for special effects—has roots in a horrifying earthquake-induced firestorm many years before, which claimed his father. Tsuburaya, ultimately, has survivor’s guilt: but for a broken-down car that kept him from meeting his father, it should have been him, too. And so he plunges ever deeper into the labor of his production schedule, the damage to his family an unavoidable cost. Somewhere in the production of his monster epic might be some kind of absolution, but the cost of seeking it is that, as in his movie, something monstrous is born.
That pattern—setting for an obsession, a distanced protagonist, a painful back story—repeats throughout this collection. It’s a structure Shepard has employed in much of his short story writing to date. To an extent, the devastating “acts of God” that befall characters in You Think That’s Bad—rain, snow, fire, and worse—are metaphorical ways through personal loss or devastation, but these stories are also very much not not about those disasters. Godzilla, the Dutch water-barrier system (“The Netherlands Lives with Water”), the Large Hadron Collider (“Low Hanging Fruit”), the looming avalanche (“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You”)—these highly particular and specialized dooms are the facts of a world that is at once malevolent and brutally indifferent. Shepard’s characters are often fiercely intelligent, boldly defiant, and uniquely positioned to see the unusual positions and places of this world and that of worlds past and yet to come. Still, you probably wouldn’t want to trade places with them.
Two stories serve as kind of outliers, in that they are set in a world and a place most of us would recognize. “In Cretaceous Seas” is more a “scene” than a fully fleshed-out short story, an at-night glimpse into the haunted inner world of a pharmaceutical bigwig and insomniac, a man more “the apologetic predator” than “prey.” If he’s a victim—and really, he might be—it’s of his own doing. The protagonist of “Boys Town” is perhaps the most pathetic character in the collection. He’s a veteran (of one of our recent foreign adventures, we assume), and with no one but a dog, a hapless mother, and a collection of military equipment, he’s dangerously alone in the world. This can’t end well, and it doesn’t. “At least I tried, though,” the veteran thinks. “I tried harder than most people think. But what I did was, in life you’re supposed to leave yourself an out, and I didn’t.” He is about to unleash real mayhem on people that may not deserve it. But how many people like him are out there? How many were promised something better—implicitly or not—than what they came home to? Shepard’s empathetic eye points to a kind of collective failure. The lonely veteran is failing, sure, but he has been failed.
The title “You Think That’s Bad” is telling. It suggests a kind of disaster-story contest, with each narrator embarking sometimes blithely upon his saga of loss and ruin. How about an avalanche? How about a brutal series of child slayings? How about a doomed ascent up a mountain? Story after story, Shepard arches his eyebrows, shrugs his shoulders. Whether in the 15th century, the near past, or the all-too upcoming future, you’re in for an unusual and engaging experience. Of course, chances are, it will not end well. What can you do, right?
Check out this NPR interview:
“‘You Think That’s Bad’: Fiction of the Unfamiliar,” Fresh Air, June 20, 2011
“Jim Shepard, Master of the Historical Short Story,” by Thomas Mallon, April 1, 2011, The New York Times
“‘You Think That’s Bad’: Delving into Disaster, in Prose,” by Michael Schaub, March 23, 2011, NPR Books
Previous Collections of Short Stories
Like You’d Understand, Anyway: Stories, Vintage, 2008
Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories, Vintage, 2004
Batting Against Castro: Stories, Knopf, 1996
Previous Homes for the Stories
“Happy with Crocodiles,” The American Scholar
“Poland Is Watching,” The Atlantic
“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” Electric Literature