At times, reading Jim Shepard’s newest collection of short stories, “You Think That’s Bad,” feels like reading a newspaper. His world is full of disasters; people seem to be dying all over the place. Characters are killed by earthquakes, floods, and avalanches; others die by auto-da-fé, by war in the jungle, by brain disease, by miscarriage, by suicide. Such extreme events may seem remote from everyday life, but they become intimate through Shepard’s colloquial language and focus on individual psychology. If newspapers merely inform us about the world’s disasters, “You Think That’s Bad” allows us to experience them.
Shepard’s stories take place all over the world, in many different historical contexts. The locales shift from provincial, Satan-fearing villages in medieval France, to the low-budget film industry in early 20th-century Tokyo. With this variety comes many fascinating, exotic details; Shepard delights in fleshing out his quirky settings. One of the collection’s most imaginative pieces, “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” is set in a futuristic Netherlands dramatically affected by global warming. Shepard draws on the conventions of dystopian science fiction, allowing his narrator to reflect on the state of the environment: “The World Glacier Monitoring Service … had just that year reported that the Pyrenees, Africa, and the Rockies were all glacier-free. The Americans had just confirmed the collapse of the West Antarctic sheet. Once-in-a-century floods in England were now occurring every two years.”
With variegated backdrops and dramatic plotlines, Shepard’s collection consistently entertains. In “Netherlands,” the narrator and his wife Cato try to prevent an imminent flood that could devastate their country—a scenario likely to be found in an apocalyptic Hollywood movie. Although Shepard creates verisimilitude through the accumulation of detail, he also offers suspenseful, fast-paced narration. This skill particularly shines during climactic moments, such as the narrator’s account of the 1953 Dutch flood in which his mother lost her brothers. “Her father returned and said they all had to leave, now,” Shepard writes. “They held hands in a chain ... Once the door was open, the wind staggered him and blew her off her feet.”
But the stories in “You Think That’s Bad” are by no means the literary equivalents of Hollywood blockbusters. Shepard’s astute and disturbing portrayals of family dynamics prevent the stories from seeming shallow, despite their glamorous settings and sensational plots. Although some relatives in the collection love and rely on each other through hard times, Shepard’s attitude toward families remains ambivalent and bittersweet. Rivalries between brothers crop up again and again in his stories. “Happy with Crocodiles” spotlights two brothers and the woman who is probably sleeping with both of them. In “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” the narrator falls in love with Ruth, the ex-fiancée of his late twin-brother Willi, who he always believed was their mother’s favorite. When he tries to prove to Ruth that Willi never loved her as much as he does, she cruelly responds: “Do you think you were Willi’s equal?” Shepard seems to share Freud’s view on the relationship between brothers: in these stories, sibling rivalry is a continuation of an Oedipal complex, and the on-going competition for a parent’s attention results in fierce enmity. Yet however eerie these fraught relationships may sound, the darker side of the anthology gives depth, intimacy, and complexity to a style of writing that would otherwise be too plot-driven.
However, Shepard’s strained families and melodramatic plots sometimes become redundant. Most of the stories feature a natural disaster or a war, accompanied by a troubled relationship between family members. It is tempting to draw a parallel between the avalanche that kills Willi and the one that kills the narrator in “Poland is Watching.” As the collection unfolds, Shepard’s tragedies lose their initial emotional impact. It is not long before a kind of disaster fatigue sets in; whenever a new character is introduced, one wonders how long it will be before some kind of disaster kills her. Likewise, whenever a sibling appears, the narrator becomes jealous. Imagine a restaurant with an exquisite specialty but nothing else on the menu—you would not want to eat there several days in a row. Reading Shepard’s anthology cover-to-cover induces similar feelings.
Worse, certain settings seem to be chosen only for their foreignness. This is most evident in “Gojira, King of the Monsters,” set in 1920s Japan. Traces of Japanese culture can be observed in the authoritarian figure of the narrator’s father. But despite this apparent attempt at cultural authenticity, his character seems too exaggerated and lacking in nuance—so much so that he borders on caricature. Also, his relationship with his wife seems too modern and American. During a quarrel over their son, he tells his wife, “Who Toho hires is none of your concern,” and she retorts, “What you do with our son is my concern.” This dispute seems unrealistic, since in 1920s Japan, a deeply Confucian society where women weren’t allowed to vote, it is unlikely that a woman would talk back to her husband in this way.
However, in “Classical Scenes of Farewell,” Shepard succeeds in creating a credible atmosphere of medieval France, employing a more archaic sentence structure and vocabulary and by choosing relatively unusual words with Latin roots. “I was born Etienne,” he writes, “in the diocese of Luçon ... and here acknowledge to the best of my abilities the reasons for those acts that have made this name along with my master’s the object of hatred throughout the region.” Here, Shepard proves that he can modify American English to simulate other cultures, and it is unclear why he chooses not to employ a similar technique in “Gojira.”
But despite the occasional redundancy and flawed depictions of other cultures, “You Think That’s Bad” is an accomplished set of stories. There is a distinct and specific style of writing that Shepard seems to have mastered; his juxtapositions of alienation and intimacy are remarkably skilled. Each of his stories is clearly written, intricately detailed, and highly entertaining. And because many of them are based on much-discussed contemporary topics––even string theory makes a brief appearance in “Low-Hanging Fruit”––they are easily relatable. “Gojira, King of Monsters,” based on the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, feels particularly topical, reading like live footage of this month’s Sendai earthquake. Perhaps the enduring value of Shepard’s collection lies in its ability to convey the human side of such tragedies, much more effectively than any news report could.
—Staff writer Shijung Kim can be reached at email@example.com.