"You Think That's Bad"
By Jim Shepard
Knopf, $24.95, 222 pages
The intrepid British travel writer Freya Stark, best known for her wanderings in the Middle East before the midpoint of the twentieth century, was in remote precincts of Persia in the mid-1930s when she was struck with malaria. As she reports in her book, "The Valleys of the Assassins" (named for a Shia sect that employed murder as a political tool), she lay there "not expecting to recover," looking over a barren landscape whose nakedness, "was in itself a preparation for the greater nakedness of death."
We will meet Freya and her assistants, the guide Ismail and muleteer Aziz, in Jim Shepard's "The Track of the Assassins," one of the standout short stories in his new fiction collection "You Think That's Bad." She is weak with malaria as the story ends, but Ismail has just washed her face with water from a goatskin and wished her well. They exchange smiles and she tells us, "My eyes close under the weight of so much sadness and gratitude."
The stories in "You Think That's Bad" are heavily threaded with sadness and gratitude, in fact: sadness for the disappointments that seem ever to beset our relationships, and gratitude for the thrill that walking in the world can otherwise entail. The hope that such disparate wellsprings of emotion can be reconciled - or at least, the conflict between them minimized - becomes a driving force in Shepard's stories.
As a Polish mountaineer expresses it, in a story that hinges on tension between the climbers' appetite for death-defying excitement and their wives' consistent anticipation of widowhood, not to mention months-long abandonment as the lesser alternative, "The mountains seemed to us another chance, our attempt to understand ourselves and exorcise those aspects we detested. To become the sort of person we could begin to respect."
A word on history here: That story, titled "Poland Is Watching," is saturated with a background motif of national pride that reflects Polish climbers' (real historical) notoriety in wintertime climbing in the Himalayas. Just as the historical Freya Stark was re-deployed in "The Track of the Assassins," so those who made the film "Godzilla" will be in "Gojira, King of the Monsters" (the film was retitled in the West): special-effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, director Ishiro Honda, and stunt man Haruo Nakajima in reptilian guise. In "Classical Scenes of Farewell," the most chilling, disturbing story in the collection, the Medieval French aristocrat and army marshal Gilles de Rais and his henchmen, executed in 1440 for serial murder of children, are reprised, in confessional narration by Etienne Corillaut, de Rais's page.
Shepard's use of relatively accurate biographical fact is bent to his own dramatic needs. Unlike memoirs that skew the truth, this is fiction that uses truth to warp into its own staged, often memoir-like reality. Affect — the feeling of the lived moment — is Shepard's quarry, in contexts that range from the Netherlands in a futuristic flood crisis (already, "Bangladesh was almost entirely a bay") to the South Pacific during the Second World War to upstate New York to the environs of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland.
At the collider (and all of Shepard's stories can be thought of as mini-colliders), the physicist narrator remarks, "All of us have kids and spouses and pets and hobbies, but that's not where we live. Where we live is that part of the cortex where we do our model building." His wife, who by his description felt he "wasn't entirely on board for the stunned-by-grief-thing" after she had a miscarriage, asks him, "What are you really looking for?" and he responds "That saving thing, I think: something that right now is beyond our ability even to imagine."
That is the dilemma faced by many of Shepard's people: they can spot the problem but have trouble groping their way toward a solution. And often as not, home life has been a hatchery of unhappiness. In "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," a young man doing avalanche research angrily considers writing to his sister, who has accused him of shedding suffering by walking away from everyone, that, "In our family the most exacting labor had been required to obtain the bleakest of essentials." Freya Stark observes of herself and a sister that their mother, "filled with happiness herself, had never noticed that our lives were heaped about in miniature ruins." In the World War II story, a pair of brothers watches their father eye them critically from top to bottom. One brother leaves, teary-eyed, but the other, who narrates the story, "hung around for a minute, to see if it was just my brother or both of us he hated."
A sense of disconnection between people runs freely through the stories in "You Think That's Bad," sometimes the result of intentional withdrawal, sometimes not. In "Gojira, King of the Monsters," Tsuburaya and his wife Masano "sat facing each other like mirror images of defeat," him pleased at being able to provide their son employment, she distressed that her husband had ignored her wishes in doing so. At another point - and perfectly suggesting the emotional duality so commonly on display in Shepard's work - she tells their son when Tsuburaya arrives home from work, "There he is with his warm smile. Orchestrating his catastrophes."
Art Winslow, a former literary and executive editor of The Nation, is a frequent contributor to The Tribune.