Friday, August 5, 2011
Worst case scenarios.
God, you say, what is with you and the short stories?
I don't know! Good question. I'm about midway through the massive Best American Short Stories of the Century, too, and I just finished another collection of Joyce Carol Oates' short stories. I just like them. Maybe it's the literary equivalent of a one-night stand. You can be really into them for a short while, but there's no commitment on your part! And anyway, short stories can pack a pretty big wallop (O. Henry, amirite?!).
I read Jim Shepard's earlier collection, Like You'd Understand Anyway and his short, powerful novel, Project X. Unlike his first short story collection, which was rather introspective and extremely heavily weighted with male characters, You Think That's Bad goes farther afield, both literally and metaphorically.
One reappearing theme in You Think That's Bad is force. Characters are pummeled by rains and rising sea levels; swept off of mountainsides by raging winds; buried and smothered under avalanches. Even Godzilla makes an appearance. Underneath these violent forces Shepard writes about rage smaller, quieter infernos. Along the way, Shepard displays a remarkable aptitude in folding a wealth of historical detail and information into his stories without seeming affected or showy.
In "Minotaur," Shepard spoofs the secretiveness of classified government operations. In "The Track of the Assassins," an eccentric woman and her two guides travel to a remote desert stronghold in Asia. "The Netherlands Lives With Water" takes the reader to a futuristic Netherlands desperate to circumvent being obliterated by rising sea levels and glacier melt. "Happy With Crocodiles" follows a hapless group of American servicemen on Paupau New Guinea during World War II. "Your Fate Hurtles Down At You" details the devastation of avalanches. In "Gojira, King of the Monsters," Shepard imagines the domestic life of Eiji Tsurburaya, the creator of Gojira (nee Godzilla), whose relationship with his wife and son is strained to breaking. In "Poland is Watching," another group of feckless husbands spend months attempting to climb the world's most dangerous mountains while their wives wait and worry. "Classical Scenes of Farewell" is a retelling of the last days of a page of the French nobleman and murderer Gilles de Rais (and is, in my opinion, the least successful story, and oddly out of place among the otherwise excellent pieces in this book).
As in Like You'd Understand Anyway, many of the characters in You Think That's Bad are bad husbands and neglectful fathers, but Shepard pulls his perspective back a little farther this time, showing his characters struggling mightily against seemingly irresistable forces - the pull of the mountains, the siren call of deeply beloved work, the devouring jungle, the overpowering avalanche, even as they try to reclaim what they sense is slipping from them.
Shepard's stories pack a wealth of information (his "The Netherlands Lives With Water" could easily be included in a science textbook) but he manages not to lose hold of the delicate strands of emotional connection, faltering and inconsistent though it may be.