Like You’d Understand, Anyway
Knopf, $23, 2007
Jim Shepard’s collection of 11 short stories, a National Book Award Finalist, is a catalog of catastrophe. Simply listing some of the situations in the collection is enough to bring on a bout of angst: Twelve doomed men trek across the endless Australian desert; a young Roman soldier watches as Britons breach the defenses of Hadrian’s Wall; the Greek writer Aeschylus prepares to fight in the Battle of Marathon; the chief executioner of the French Revolution goes about his inherited calling; yetis stalk a group of Third Reich-sponsored explorers in Tibet. And then there’s the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, an earthquake, a tidal wave, high school football, and summer camp. If you’re thinking that football and summer camp are less terrifying than Chernobyl, Shepard will make you think again. Are we having fun yet?
Amazingly enough, we are. Though focusing on disasters, the stories themselves are triumphs: darkly funny, deeply intelligent, and unforgettable. Shepard’s characters are sharply and sympathetically developed, never mere pawns of historical forces. They debate with Fate and with each other. They put up a mighty fight. They contemplate and comment. Every story is narrated in the first person by an utterly unique character, each an obsessive observer. Here is the leader of the fatal Australian fiasco, the man who decided to carry a whaleboat to the center of the continent, certain he would discover an inland sea: “A close, humid day called forth innumerable insects. Mander-Jones bitten on the scalp by a centipede in his hat. The dogs killed a fine specimen of something that had been following us, but in the ensuing scuffle they tore off its head.” Aeschylus, surveying the enemy: “Medes, Egyptians, Dacians, Illyrians…. They wear trousers. Boots dyed purple or red. Quilted linen tunics. Cuirasses with metalwork like the meshings of a net.” A supervisor at Chernobyl: “No one working at the station, we were told, was wearing protective clothing. The workers were drinking vodka, they said, to decontaminate. Everyone had lost track of everyone. It was the Russian story.”
In a literary climate that almost demands that stories within a collection be linked—or a “novel-in-stories”—Shepard defies the trend, creating a collection marked by great diversity in geography, time period, and nationality. But there are underlying patterns here that deepen the humanity of the book. Many stories center on families with one dead or missing son out of several others. These sons share fierce fathers; there is both abiding love and rivalry between brothers. An image reinforced by the cover art, which features two wrestlers whose bodies are indistinguishable from each other, brothers here are eternal opponents, inseparable in their lifelong embrace. Aeschylus, awaiting battle, remembers how he trailed his older brother everywhere: “Our eyes met like bones jarred in sockets. ‘What did I want?’ he’d demand.” Over and over, brothers ask that question of each other. There is, of course, no satisfactory answer.
The author of six novels, including Love and Hydrogen, and two previous collections of stories, Shepard lives and teaches in Williamstown, Massachusetts. His latest, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, is a profound and disturbing book, full of dark delights. A book to re-read and to treasure.