“After the Fall
Jim Shepard’s stories are so dangerously brilliant, they’re radioactive.
‘The Zero Meter Diving Team,’ a short story about Chernobyl and its terrible aftermath, — and just one of an astounding set of stories in Jim Shepard’s new collection, Like You’d Understand Anyway (Knopf) — presents itself, in spite of its hideous subject matter, as something of a bitter comedy. Mikhail, a hospitalized engineer left ill and burned mahogany after the accident, receives a visit from his brother, who is a bureaucrat in Moscow’s department of nuclear energy. The visit is official: the brother (and narrator) is conducting an inquiry into the accident. ‘The investigator is weeping,’ Mikhail crows from his hospital bed. The brother explains his tears by pointing out that the accident and its victims constitute a great tragedy — ‘Oh, yes,’ says Mikhail. ‘Tragedy tragedy tragedy.’ That slightly comic, slightly abrasive repetition of the word tragedy forms the perfect caption to Shepard’s fictional worldview, which might be summed up as sadness hardened against sentiment by an unyielding wit. Shepard looks at life as we have insisted on arranging it and sees all the inevitable vivid deformities our blundering has produced — the vividness fascinates him and the inevitability makes him laugh, even though he renders as beautifully as any writer the hard, frightening fact of the deformities themselves. To be able to see people in pain, lost, ruinously mistaken, and to be able even then to love them and find them funny, marks the moment when the artist most closely resembles God — which is always, secretly, the great artist’s ultimate aim.” — Vince Pisarro for O.