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'You Think That's Bad': Book review

In his latest, Jim Shepard leads his characters — and his readers — right up to the point of obliteration, leaving us exhilarated and despairing at once.

April 10, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Jim Shepard, author of "You Think That's Bad."
Jim Shepard, author of "You Think That's Bad." (Michael Lionstar, Random…)

You Think That's Bad


Jim Shepard

Alfred A. Knopf: 226 pp., $24.95

It's not that Jim Shepard isn't known, exactly; it's that he isn't known enough. Although his 2007 collection of short fiction, "Like You'd Understand, Anyway," was a finalist for the National Book Award, he has never fully caught on with readers — his work is too diverse, too out there, too plain unclassifiable to find a place among the silos that define so much of our conversation about writers and books.

That's to our detriment, for, beginning with his first novel, "Flights," in 1983, Shepard has traced his own odd line through contemporary fiction, engaging everything from historical figures to the most outrageous landscapes of the imagination to fuel his work. In "Nosferatu" (1998), he builds a novel around the German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau; "Project X" (2004) describes a Columbine-like school shooting from the point of view of one of the attackers, a confused eighth-grader who seems as surprised as anyone when the shooters' plan actually takes shape. These are prototypic Shepard characters: adrift, a bit uncertain, with a strangely futile sense of destiny. "At this point," the narrator declares in "The Netherlands Lives With Water," "each of us understands privately that we're operating under the banner of lost control."

"The Netherlands Lives With Water" is one of 11 stories in Shepard's new collection, "You Think That's Bad," and it's a stunner: a look at a future Holland in which climate change has created a flood crisis so extreme that it's no longer certain how or whether the country will survive. "It's the catastrophe for which the Dutch have been planning for fifty years," Shepard tells us. "Or, really, for as long as we've existed. We had cooperative water management before we had a state." What such a story really traces, however, is the point at which cooperation, management, all the tools of civilization may no longer be enough.

That's a running theme in "You Think That's Bad," which balances an understanding of history with a recognition that we may be living at the end of history, at a place where narrative can go only so far. Again and again, Shepard gives us characters at the edge of their endurance, not just at the end of their ropes but at the end of their lives. In "The Track of the Assassins," a female British explorer of the 1930s goes in search of the legendary Hassan-i Sabbah and his band of assassins; although she initially impresses her guides ("One evening apropos of nothing [Ismail] remarked that it was no wonder England was a mighty nation, since its women did what Persian men feared to attempt"), the story ends with her weak from malaria and dysentery, staring down eternity "with [her] hands upon [her] breasts." In "Poland Is Watching," a pair of Polish mountaineers — friends since childhood — become the first climbers to reach the summit of Nanga Parbat, "the world's ninth-tallest mountain," only to succumb to the snow, wind and cold.

These stories bring their first-person narrators right up to the point of obliteration, leaving us exhilarated and despairing at once. It's a peculiar tension, but it works because Shepard never flinches from its implications. "Most people don't know what it's like to look down the road and see there's nothing there," explains the narrator of "Boys Town," a 38-year-old veteran at the breaking point. "You try to tell somebody that but they just look at you. I don't know why people need to hear the same thing ten thousand times, but they do."

At the heart of such a vision is the idea of disconnection, of the things we do that keep us from ourselves. Shepard's characters are, for the most part, distracted: husbands, fathers, coworkers lost among the surfaces of the world. "Gojira, King of the Monsters" — which reflects the author's long-held fascination with pop culture (one of his early stories reframes "Creature From the Black Lagoon" from the monster's perspective) — portrays Eiji Tsuburaya, the real-life Japanese special-effects wizard who created the original Godzilla, as a man whose fascination with the orderliness of model-building reflects an inability to deal with the messiness of family life. "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" and "Happy With Crocodiles" portray young men wrestling with the specters of brothers who are friends and rivals, especially when it comes to the women they love.

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