NY Times Reviews The World to Come

Wonderful, insightful review from the New York Times:

There’s a fascinating type of list that shows up repeatedly in the acknowledgments of Jim Shepard’s story collections. Varied and wide-ranging, it’s not an academic bibliography, more like a gush of all the research material he used in preparation. His latest list unfurls for pages, from country diaries to wartime journals, naval histories, minutes of congressional hearings and even the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s “Employee Safety Rules.”

This is what you get with Shepard’s short stories — weight and validity, lingo and precision, so that men haven’t just worked on a train, they’ve “humped as gangers.” His stories come bearing enough unimpeachable detail to ensure they never sink into the mush of a half-baked world. This diligence, Shepard once noted in an interview, isn’t drudgery, and you can almost imagine him peering at later drafts, ready to joyously crush an anachronism and add a period flourish. The results often end up resembling journalism, as if a newspaper’s account of a train wreck suddenly became encrusted with enough background and context to switch genres and become fiction.

This approach gives the individual stories heft and the collections a dizzying range. In the latest book, we’re plunged into the cold waters of the Atlantic, lifted into an ocean of air via balloon and even left to winter on a sea of groaning arctic ice. Shepard doesn’t want to scrutinize the social facets of a village à la Alice Munro, nor is he interested in Mavis Gallant’s tactic of using stories to explore variations on a single life. He wants the entirety of the world, with no era out of bounds, and if he must turn to “Suspended Animation: Six Essays on the Preservation of Bodily Parts” to get the correct details for the effects of a volcanic eruption circa 1600 B.C. — hey, so be it.

If a common theme arises, it’s that the world is and has always been an angry place and Shepard’s characters must steel themselves to face it. That stack of research isn’t piled up so he can learn more about the placidity and comfort of old times; it’s so he can deliver characters to moments of crisis, often accompanied by unruly winds and swelling water. “The World to Come” is fast approaching these men and women who seek to “chip into the wilderness the foundations of a civilization.” At the very least, they’d best expect bruises.

Consider “Safety Tips for Living Alone,” which is set on a treacherous North Atlantic radar platform known as the Tiltin’ Hilton. We meet the men stuck on this folly and their wives ashore, so the story takes on the shape of “The Right Stuff” after a few spins in the dryer, shrunk down but recognizable. Shepard’s quick character sketches have been honed over four previous collections, but what impresses is his ability to convey compressed, cinematic action. He knows when to pop rivets and bend structures, add histrionics as well as saltwater stoicism.

Shepard also understands that one of the pleasures in reading a story collection lies in seeing how the stories themselves interact. In an earlier collection, “Like You’d Understand, Anyway,” the tale of an auxiliary Roman legionnaire trying to protect Hadrian’s Wall gives way to an account of the gladiatorial tendencies of Texas high school football. Both examine male expectation and pride, their similarities separated by many centuries. This new collection also makes broad jumps in time, space and tone — most notably between the claustrophobia of British submarine life and the slightly different pressures of working at a fund-raising job for a small-town college.

“I wasn’t allowed to talk shop,” the narrator ruefully admits in one story. This is the most pained admission a Shepard character can make, and if some of the stories exhibit a weakness, it’s when this shoptalk overwhelms. I was reminded at times of crowd scenes in epic historical films in which each extra is frantically engaged in some verifiably accurate activity — even though the details are true, the great cumulation gets to be too much. Occasionally Shepard dazzles himself with his stacks of research, and the result is a thicket of veracity that threatens to strangle the story. Characters become listers. Narrators overshare. Women stand in to be told about the trimming tanks of a submarine’s lower decks. But what’s a researcher to do? Research less? In a world where short story collections often make lazy circles around the author’s lived experience, I’m willing to overlook.

Shepard’s hard work is commendable, but two of the most haunting stories in the collection succeed by standing in relief to his heavily researched inventions. A different kind of collusion develops between author and reader in the more modern stories. Here Shepard doesn’t need to prove his world is real in every gesture and exchange, so the narrative is looser, less crammed and even more tender with the sort of nuance readers will pick up with ease. The themes, however, don’t stray. The stories that take place in (relatively) modern times still deal with forces larger than we are, forces known to crush and kill — the American health care system, for example.

Although Shepard’s beautifully researched creations inhabit different eras, his basic point is made and remade. Before you ship out, before you submerge your submarine or unleash your balloon, cherish every bit of warmth and respite, every gesture of love. The world is coming for you. Hold on tight. One day, you might be like those Air Force men atop their buckling platform in the North Atlantic, staring down a dark engulfing wave, “the implacability that would no longer indulge their mistakes and would sweep from them all they had ever loved.”

Full review here.  Go and buy the book!

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Rave Review from Washington Post for The World to Come

A wonderful review on Jim’s new collection.  Here’s the review in full:

There are slews of historical novels — hefty tomes, usually with gargantuan casts — that show off writers’ mastery of various periods. But historical short stories? Far fewer writers go there. It simply takes too long to build the past world with all of its furniture and facts. Short stories are far more likely to be snappily contemporary than to explore Cromwell’s England or the Russian Revolution.

One noteworthy exception is Jim Shepard, an outrageously versatile and gifted fiction writer who is deeply at home in a research library. His past short-story collections have included characters as diverse as Aeschylus, a 15th-century French serial killer and a Russian female astronaut in 1963. With his fifth collection, “The World to Come,” he continues his original, precise exploration of times and places long ago and far, far away. Only two of the 10 stories here concern modern folks with recognizable American dissatisfactions. Shepard’s characters are too threatened for malaise — in fact, most of them are just trying to outrun death.

Death isn’t a distant threat, either. It’s a tsunami roaring from behind, or a British submarine during World War II surrounded by German vessels, or a train full of crude oil about to explode. It’s an Australian storm “formed by monstrous whirlpools of air over three hundred miles across that came scything down out of the Coral Sea into the rainforests of northeastern Australia with such ferocity that the governmental and amateur meteorologists investigating afterward reported their findings in expressions of awe and horror usually reserved for the most extravagant fictions.”

“HMS Terror” chronicles the 1845 Franklin Expedition, a legendarily grim three-year journey to the North Pole during which the crew freeze, lose all of their teeth and, despite resorting to cannibalism, starve to death. Like many of Shepard’s stories, it is constructed as one man’s diary. Shepard deftly arrives at a diction that’s convincingly that of a 19th-century sailor; the voice is simple, declarative. As he proved in his masterful last novel, “The Book of Aron,” which followed one Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, Shepard can be quietly elegiac as he attempts to imagine the unimaginable. There’s no room for sentimentality in a world so relentlessly “stunning and heartless.”

That sailor — and the ones in “Telemachus,” about Navy men trapped in a submarine — yearns for a girl back home. But other than love and the longing for love, Shepard suggests that work is what most shapes us. “The Ocean of Air” is about the Montgolfier brothers of France and their 1783 attempt to patent a hot air balloon. “Trade itself,” the inventor declares, “is nothing more than a galaxy of the imagination.” So when Shepard offers us something that might feel dated — say, a mid-19th-century cure for the flu (“an enema of molasses, warm water, and lard, with a drop of turpentine next to his nose”) — he presents it not as an endearing, antiquated curiosity, but as an enterprising use of all best current wisdom. There’s no condescension; people in the past, he suggests, are not so different from us in their desires, fears and willingness to take risks.

In “Cretan Love Song,” he asks his readers to “Imagine you’re part of the Minoan civilization, just hanging out with your effete painted face down by the water’s edge on the north shore of Crete, circa 1600 BC,” before an epic tsunami. Not too much of a stretch, especially given climate change threats. In that story, Shepard obliterates an entire civilization in 2½ pages. He uses the short story form to explore the nature of time itself — how moments of pain or anxiety can feel eternal, a kind of frozen present.

The title story, “The World to Come,” is a breathtaking account of two farmers’ wives in New York, in 1856, astonished to find themselves deeply in love. In between the hard labor of a farm and the claustrophobia of their isolation, they steal delight in each other’s company. “She asked that I speak,” the narrator writes in her diary. “I almost cried out that how should I have known what was happening to me? There were no instruction booklets of which I was aware. I told her I could feel something rising in me as she approached, like hair on the back of a dog. I told her the thought of her through the week was my shelter, the way the chickadees took to the depths of the evergreens to keep the snow and ice and wind a bay.”

Things don’t end well for the women. These stories are full of roiling grief, yet they’re never merely grim. As one sailor muses, about the Antarctic landscape, “By day the icebergs refract a vividness of color beyond the power of art or words to represent.” Shepard’s project is always to push toward that sense of wonder and the “high hopefulness” of purpose that ordinary people have always brought to the project of living — to give us through fiction a sense of profound empathy that the historical record alone cannot. He most stunningly succeeds.

Full link here.  Jim’s collection comes out February 21st!  Preorder the book on Amazon.

“A Slim Masterpiece:” Joshua Ferris reviews Book of Aron

A wonderful review in the Guardian: “The Book of Aron is his best novel yet, a short and moving masterpiece.” Here it is in full:

Jim Shepard has always been preoccupied by history. His long-admired collections of short stories come with multiple pages of acknowledgments that read like the bibliographies of an intellectually promiscuous research student. His fictional subjects are often real-life figures who feature in various human fiascos spanning the centuries. It might be tempting to dismiss history’s distant follies as the function of a bygone and benighted era, but Shepard’s short fictions remind us that all eras are benighted because humanity is inherently flawed, reckless and blinkered.

Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, set in the Warsaw ghetto, is another historical fiction, but a departure of sorts. Where Shepard’s short fiction often features the bit players and hapless sidemen of disaster, The Book of Aron brings to life an indisputably great man, the child advocate Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage and followed his charges to Treblinka.

But The Book of Aron is Aron’s book, the story of a misbegotten boy born in Poland at a disastrous time. His antics exasperate his father, who beats him. His mother, loving but harried, is confounded by his behaviour. If that behaviour is mostly that of your run-of-the-mill five-year-old menace, nobody in the Rozycki household needs another headache. The trouble greater than Aron is the general squalor of life among Jews in the Polish countryside on the brink of the second world war. Sickness, toil, penury, bad teeth, disaster and death rule their lives long before the Nazis even make an appearance.

Aron’s early efforts to be a better person are touching. “I lectured myself on walks,” he tells us. “I made lists of ways I could improve.” He takes to books. He loves his mother. In the quiet hours of night, they form a special bond that is Aron’s only tether to humanity.

Things for the Rozyckis don’t improve when Aron’s father gets a job at his cousin’s factory, and they move to Warsaw. The Germans invade Poland soon after, and all Jews are shunted into the ghetto. Families double up in small apartments and sleep in hallways. Aron’s father is beaten mercilessly by German soldiers. His brothers are shipped off to labour camps. Aron runs the streets with a patchwork gang, stealing and smuggling what they can. He falls in with a member of the Jewish police who turns him into an ambivalent informant.

Shepard’s fidelity to the historical record is impressive, but what makes The Book of Aron a work of art is his obedience to the boy’s restricted perspective. To render Aron believably, Shepard had not only to sublimate copious research; he had to channel the consciousness and patterns of speech of a Jewish-Polish boy from the 1930s while divesting himself of most of the tools and tactics a typical writer uses to tell a story: elevated diction, reader-directed introspection, knowing metaphor. Shepard did something similar in his excellent, upsetting 2005 novel Project X, but that book’s protagonist was a contemporary American boy. This is the more remarkable act of ventriloquism, and it serves more than one thematic purpose. What better way to rebuke the Nazi piety that all Jewish life was utterly worthless than by bringing to full and empathetic life a perfect nobody of a kid, historically irrelevant as anything but a number, one of a countless horde? Aron’s perspective also mirrors that of the ghetto: no one knows what’s coming next, and the Jews are like credulous children under the Nazis’ indiscriminate lash. You’ve never experienced the unfolding atrocities in quite this way before, and this helps to make them anew.

There are bleak ironies and dark comic exchanges throughout The Book of Aron. But while these start off in a familiar Shepard mode – one character wielding sarcasm against another to reveal shortcomings of character – before the overwhelming colossus of Nazi oppression the humour has no choice but to shift focus. Considerable laughter emerges out of the terrible circumstances that surround Aron and his family, as the only defence the Jews of Warsaw have against patented insanity, and it rings convincingly with the syntax and speech patterns of aphoristic Yiddish wit. This is just one example of how the book slowly expands to become something great.

That expansion kicks into full force in the final third of the book, when Aron, stripped of family, home and sustenance, and freezing to death on the streets of the ghetto, is rescued by Korczak. Korczak is no cheery saint with box office appeal. “We’re walking tombstones,” he says to his assistant, Madame Stefa, whose only happiness is Korczak, but whose passion he cannot reciprocate. “I exist not to be loved,” he tells her, “but to act.” These are the words of a monomaniacal and self-martyring machine. But he is indisputably good. Despite illness and rejection, Korczak makes trip after tireless trip into the wider world in search of money and food for the children under his care. He soon takes to Aron, who, in his presence, no longer needs to make lists on how to improve. Their friendship, based on insomnia as much as likemindedness, prompts Aron to act selflessly in a way his mother would not have dared dream. If it’s ultimately in vain, there are consolations. We watch as character transcends its mean surroundings, and a once-questionable boy becomes a loving human being.

Narrative art about the Holocaust runs the risk of indulging our collective yearning. Please, writer; please, film-maker: save the characters we love. Alchemise the evil. Reassure us. The Book of Aron offers no reassurance. The fate of history is sealed. The book’s final pages are shattering. But by reclaiming an insignificant voice and deploying it to observe a great man, Shepard turns hell into a testament of love and sacrifice. The Book of Aron is his best novel yet, a short and moving masterpiece.

“The ideal author you’d sit across the table from”

Book/Plate is a literary/culinary series in partnership with Peck’s Homemade, which pairs new books with complementary cuisine for a unique dinner with the author. And they had an event for The Book of Aron! The menu featured a meal celebrating the foods of the Eastern European Jewish Diaspora and celebrates the survival of this cultural tradition.   Check out a short video below:

In the Shadows of the Holocaust: LitHub Interview

Here’s a really interesting interview with Bethanne Patrick of LitHub:

According to Vulture, Shepard is “the best writer you’ve never heard of,” the author of six novels prior to The Book of Aron, as well as four short-story collections. Since I agree with Vulture, I’d rather Jim Shepard make his work memorable than use his brain cells on recalling a workshop participant at a cocktail party.

Many others have already written extensively about Shepard’s previous work, and I direct you here and here, if you’d like more of a recap, or an introduction. Here I’d prefer to focus on The Book of Aron, both because its his new release, and because, like my colleague Ron Charles at The Washington Post, I believe it’s a masterpiece.

The Book of Aron is the story of a nine-year-old Polish Jew whose limited juvenile perspective allows Shepard to focus less on war and politics and more on humanity and compassion.

But that doesn’t mean the trademark Jim Shepard humor, dry and droll and spot-on, doesn’t appear. Aron can tell us on one page, “It was terrible to be the person I was,” and leave us in tears (all right, that was me, and it was only page three), then turn around and say something hilarious, and utterly right for his situation.

As Aron is relocated from countryside to city, from city to ghetto, ghetto to orphanage, and orphanage to concentration camp, his story intersects with the historical journey of a remarkable man, doctor Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Henry Goldzsmit, who truly was a pediatrician). “Pan Doktor” (Mister Doctor), as he was known, opened his first orphanage in Poland in 1912. When the orphanage was moved inside the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, he moved with it, and refused to leave or abandon the children. All of them were transported to Treblinka on August 5, 1942.

Bethanne Patrick: You said the character of Aron arrived when, “My boy started complaining to me.” What was it about his voice or tone that grabbed you?

Jim Shepard: Most of my narrators—recently, mostly first-person—confront the problem of hubris, and most of them start out in a complaining or angry or obsessive mode. I grew up around a lot of kvetch-y Italian relatives. I’m comfortable with bitchy. My mother was one of the great bitchers of all time and I’d think: Jesus, you’re bitching about that? What about these people who have no legs? That dichotomy, realizing that kids in the orphanage can complain, but then someone might say to them: Hey, this place saved your life, asshole.

There’s a tension inside this child narrator of mine: He may hate whatever place he lands in, but hey, this place saved your life, asshole. That tension immediately swept away one of the worries I had about writing this book, which was “Oh, god, here’s Jim writing about the Holocaust again.” These characters are complaining about life before the Germans even arrive. It’s a nice bracing corrective to how Holocaust stories often operate.

BP: Why a child narrator?

JS: I decided a child would be better suited to enact my limitations, and to impart that sense of fatalism that was quite common to adults Jews of that era, but also part of any crabby child’s vision: No matter what adult is around, I’m probably going to have a shitty day. Aron overhears adults talking about historical matters, like “Berlin was just bombed,” but his juvenile response is always “I guess things are going to be shitty for all of us.”

I always believe in building up micro to macro. Aron starts by complaining about his status within the family. I think that’s common to most children, including my own. They’re always thinking of their place in the family; it’s the world that has the most power over you. Aron is viewed unfairly, for many reasons, and he’s quite isolated, even by alienated little boy standards. We always construct this tension for ourselves about not dramatizing one person’s suffering over another, but of course we do it all the time, and especially in literature! Think of Lear. Holden Caulfield. It’s how narrative works. We single out a figure who represents some kind of suffering. I love the irony that Aron, of all people, would end up somebody important to people’s minds. The idea that I could elevate somebody like that—that’s one of the things that makes writing worth it, to me.

BP: Why another book about the Holocaust? Did you consider the fact that very few survivors are still alive?

JS: I think I felt humility and heavy responsibility because of the subject. I would also feel that way if I were writing about soldiers at Chancellorsville. I think you have a good point about survivors. The window is closing for memoirs and nonfiction from their perspective.

But while their stories need to be told and I hope that as many of them are as can be, I wanted to figure this out for myself, which is of course why I write fiction. And I wanted to bring the reader along while I did it, which is another reason why I write fiction.

BP: You’re known for your sense of humor, and it can be found in this book, despite its heavy subject. How did you incorporate the two?

JS: Part of the way that you decide a subject is suitable for you is to find—discover?—these kinds of harmonies and resonances with your own sensibility. As I was doing my research, I found jokes that the older people tell, like the elderly survivor who visited Auschwitz recently and said to the guard at the ticket booth: “The last time I was in line here it was free.” My humor seemed to fit very well with with that response: As horrible as it all was, it was never not absurd.

BP: How do you tell a story that’s been told before, so often?

JS: That’s a really good question, because although it’s a problem that everyone in literature faces, literature of the Holocaust has become a kind of genre. Part of the way you come to that is to defamiliarize the story in some way. You reassure yourself that it’s possible, you say to yourself that you need to keep in mind the impatience you have while reading through a million documents is the same impatience the reader has. You don’t stop reading, but you start tuning out certain things and becoming alert to others. You reach the point where you find something new and unfamiliar that makes the rest of it fall away, and suddenly you know that you can tell your story, that you can contribute something. And making something new to the reader doesn’t mean you don’t have respect for the suffering. If anything, if you’re doing it right, it means you are able to break through the numbness that surrounds any human who watches the news today.

BP: One of the things you highlight for the reader in The Book of Aron is how much of life in Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto was reduced to the transactional.

JS: It has to come from the research, and it did. If it were “that’s just my view of people,” it would ring false. Everybody chooses which details to include. And, of course, I also found stories of compassion. If I’d chosen to base my book on those, it might have swung over to “what a heartwarming place the ghetto was!” In most situations, there’s a balance of compassion and commerce. But not for Aron.

BP: What is it about Poland, with you?

JS: You know, there’s this wonderful tension inside Polish history, a country that is everybody’s parking lot! Imagine some of these councils: “You take part of Poland…” With Poland being a fiercely Catholic state on top of that, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jews, and that means there was a pretty virulent anti-Semitism in Poland going on even longer than it was in Germany. With Poles as perpetrators and Poles as victims? That’s wonderful for a writer’s purpose. If you go to your neighbors for help, are they going to turn you in—or not? It created interesting tensions and grotesque situations, and it made Jews feel doubly isolated. Here’s the thing: It wasn’t very hard to get out of the Warsaw Ghetto. But why would you? It wasn’t the Germans you had to worry about, it was your former boss, or teacher, or butcher. That makes for a much more interesting and complicated portrait. It’s also why German suggestions about “the Jewish problem” didn’t seem as terrible to the Poles as they might have to a different nationality.

BP: Yet you have a few symbols—I’m thinking of Aron’s mother insisting on her prettiest nightgown when she’s ill, because his father might come home—that suggest an impulse towards hope.

JS: When people say what a horribly bleak story, why would you want to do this, I say: I resist the idea that it’s unbelievably bleak. I find that extreme pressure can result in extreme compassion, and the kind of hope that keeps us alive.

BP: Speaking of keeping us alive: History is a survivor’s tale. Discuss.

JS: To be a survivor you have to have some kind of resourcefulness. Sometimes you have to be in league with perpetrators, depending on what kind of resources you have. Again and again in my reading and research I saw astonishing emotional resourcefulness surface, all sorts, some of which might seem quite startling to those of us who have not experienced that kind of pressure.

Saints and great men: When you’re not just creating hagiography, you try to get at the human side of these figures. One of the aspects of being truly messianic and driven on behalf of someone else is that you get the message over and over again that your desires are unimportant. And the saintly one will say to his deputy, if my desires are unimportant, so are yours.

BP: Your research, as you’ve mentioned, was extensive. Was there something that stunned you?

JS: I came well short of being a Holocaust scholar, and I’m happy that I’m not a Holocaust scholar, I think those are always very unhappy people on two different levels: Both the astonishing amount of horrific detail, and the worry that you’ll sanitize or sensationalize.

An example of the first level is that we tend to forget about the daily torments people endured, like constant fleas and lice. An example of the second is that you’re not sure what you have the right to inflict on anyone else. Can you go all the way to Treblinka? I could not. But I decided I could go, or thought I could go, to the ghetto.

So, the thing that stunned me: When I was in Poland, at Belzec, I saw a memorial to an SS officer who was so revolted and horrified at what he saw that he wrote a letter to a Swedish envoy saying, “Here’s what’s going on, you need to know about this.” His letter was essentially an account of what it was like to look through the window of a gas chamber in the moments when the women and children and babies inside realized they were not going to have showers, that they were going to be gassed to death. I didn’t feel I had the right to inflict that on the reader.

BP: You didn’t “feel” you had the right. Let’s talk about that. Our mutual friend and colleague Dani Shapiro refers to the “shimmer” when you know you’re on the right track. This is something different.

JS: Yes, it’s the “dark shimmer.” You have a contract with the reader, and depending on which book you have in your head, you have to consider at which point you might be tipping over into a kind of pornography. You’re going by feel, there’s no rule about this. At what point might the reader finally feel that this is too much of an assault? For example, The Painted Bird is a close to a kind of casual brutality and a casual aggression as I can think of.

And you know that terrible things happened. But that absolutely awful stuff inside the gas chamber had a level of intimacy inside the anguish that I was not comfortable with claiming would make my book even stronger. It’s the kind of decision that feels really intuitive. That said, if you are going to write about this subject at all, you have to be consistent, and you can’t shy away from things that are crucial to what you want to get across.

BP: Your last line—before the Historical Note—is Korczak telling Aron the final piece of his institution’s philosophy: “And the child has the right to make mistakes.”

JS: Korczak’s whole life is about understanding human weakness and making space for it. That kind of generosity of spirit is what we, or at least I, imagine as a kind of ethical greatness. Everybody has the right to make mistakes, everybody has the right to be forgiven. There’s something hubristic about imagining that you’re so awful that you can’t be forgiven. It’s a way of aggrandizing yourself: “I’ve been so iniquitous that I can’t be redeemed.”

It’s really important that Korczak say that to Aron, right at that moment. They need that strength before they confront what’s ahead.