Sunday, February 03, 2008

Like You'd Understand, Anyway (Jim Shepard)

I do love me some Jim Shepard. Batting Against Castro and Love and Hydrogen (which also includes nine of the fourteen stories from the now out-of-print Batting Against Castro) are two of my favorite story collections, period, and I ordered Like You’d Understand, Anyway pretty much as soon as I heard about it. If you haven’t read him before, here’s as good a place to start as any. You won’t be disappointed.

Short stories aren’t usually known for being research-intensive, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Shepard: in his acknowledgments, he lists about sixty articles and books as research sources for these eleven stories. He’s always been drawn to historical material and fictional representations of real people or real events from the past—“Batting Against Castro,” about two journeyman American baseball players in Cuba in 1951; “Nosferatu” (later expanded into Nosferatu), F. W. Murnau’s diary of making his most famous film; “Love and Hydrogen,” about two men trying to hide their homosexuality on board the Hindenburg; and what his agent evidently refers to as his Libel Cycle, including stories told from the point of view of John Ashcroft and John Entwhistle, just to name a few—and Like You’d Understand expands on that fascination. Stories here (all first person) are narrated variously by Boris Prushinsky, the chief engineer at Chernobyl; an ineffectual Roman soldier stationed at Hadrian’s Wall; Ernst Schäfer, a German zoologist ostensibly exploring Tibet to further Nazi understanding of the Aryan race while really pursuing a quixotic quest for the yeti; a relentless British explorer of the nineteenth-century Australian outback; a middle-aged Aeschylus preparing to take up arms at the Battle of Marathon; Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space; and Charles-Henri Sanson, the chief executioner of Paris during the Reign of Terror. (Several stories from Love and Hydrogen would have fit seamlessly here—“Descent into Perpetual Night,” for example, told by William Beebe, a naturalist who made the first manned deep-sea exploration in a bathysphere.) It also includes a few more straightforward stories: domestic strife in “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian,” two star high-school football players in “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak” (which called to mind the adrenaline-fueled jet pilot of “Who We Are, What We’re Doing” in Batting Against Castro), a teenager at summer camp in “Courtesy for Beginners.”

Given all the research that went into them, the stories naturally have a great breadth and depth of detail to them, but it’s the humanity of the voices that makes them sing—characters striving to live up to their fathers’ expectations, to navigate the complex obligations of family, to make sense of the precarious worlds they find themselves in, to understand their own hearts and the hearts of others. In that sense, the historicity is almost beside the point: these are stories of unusual people in extraordinary circumstances, but also rooted in profoundly ordinary human yearnings.

P.S. Memo to Knopf marketing department: I’m glad this was a National Book Award finalist, and I hope the round, shiny stickers you put on here help sell more copies of this excellent collection. However, I don’t like round, shiny stickers on my books. So it would be good if, in the future, you could use stickers that don’t leave behind a sticky residue that, when you try to clean it off, ends up taking part of the cover off with it. Boooo.

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