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The inescapable

Like You'd Understand, Anyway Stories; Jim Shepard; Alfred A. Knopf: 212 pp., $23

September 30, 2007|Tara Ison | Tara Ison is the author, most recently, of "The List."

Battles for conquest from ancient Greece to Sputnik-era outer space; landscapes spanning the Australian desert and the Himalayan heights; the anxious inner lives of a man debating a vasectomy or the head executioner of revolutionary France -- such is the stunning breadth of the 11 stories in Jim Shepard's new collection, "Like You'd Understand, Anyway." Here we have an eclectic overview of human experience that reveals on both epic and intimate scales how in our struggle to move forward we just as often circle back on ourselves and collapse; a macro book told with a micro eye. These wildly diverse stories share a fascination with the inevitable cost of familial obligation and the inescapable fallout from disaster, both natural and human-made.

"Was I ever the brother you hoped I would be?" nuclear engineer Boris Yakovlevich Prushinsky plaintively asks his little brother, Mikhail, in "The Zero Meter Diving Team." Mikhail, thanks to Boris' nepotistic pull, was working at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor the night of April 26, 1986, and is now dying in a hospital bed, seared by radiation. Boris is consumed by remorse -- "Here's what it's like to bear up under the burden of so much guilt: everywhere you drag yourself you leave a trail," he tells us -- and devastated by the result of his service to both state and family.

This is the first story in "Like You'd Understand, Anyway," and it sets a thematic tone. There are dyads and triads of brothers here, brothers mourning brothers they hated but protected, haunted by brothers they loved but failed. The Chernobyl disaster is followed by a familial meltdown in "Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian," in which a young boy, trapped in a combative home on a rainy day, yearns to both humiliate and help his unstable older brother. Are they rivals or allies? He cannot know. In "My Aeschylus," a pair of soldier-brothers at the Battle of Marathon struggle to reconcile a lifetime of conflicting roles and responsibilities in the face of their own impending deaths -- yet both men are bound by a kind of penance for a third brother, long dead. "Each night on this plain in front of the invader, sharing with me a sleeping pallet damp with cold and dew," Shepard writes, "my brother lies awake despite his exhaustion, still grieving for our brother and still refusing me forgiveness for having been spared." Brothers are constantly at war with themselves and each other in these poignant stories, competing for fathers or rank, wanting to protect, or punish, or worship, torn between the desire for an independence and the obligations and loyalties of fraternal love.

There are also quests in this collection, foolhardy expeditions for political or sociological reasons, yet driven by foolhardy inner demons as well. Ernst Schafer, who narrates "Ancestral Legacies," has been sent by the Third Reich to search for the "Nordic-Aryan legacy" while stirring up British-Tibetan tensions in the Himalayas; he's skeptical of Himmler's bogus theories but happy to exploit those state-provided funds. A self-proclaimed man of science -- "I'm interested in the racial origins of inventiveness. . . . [B]efore this mission I myself had begun branching out into the more positive aspects of eugenics" -- Schafer is more intent on justifying his quest for the mythical yeti: "I've been mocked for devoting my life to a legend. But legends have moved whole nations, and held them together."

If this obsessive desire to meld magic and science leads to disaster, so does the fanatical journey of 1840s explorer R.M. Beadle in "The First South Central Australian Expedition." He leads his men into the burning desert in search of an inland sea -- but also in retreat from a powerful father's shadow and a painful childhood legacy. In "Eros 7," Soviet astronaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova proudly rises from obscure farm girl to become the poster child for Soviet supremacy as the first woman in space. But what she really wants is to reconnect with her inaccessible lover, a fellow astronaut, whose concurrent space flight will place their orbital trajectories within two kilometers of each other. When he proves as emotionally distant in space as he is on Earth, she abandons her mission, destroying her future and throwing Kremlin officials into a tizzy of spin.

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