As fans of Jim Shepard’s long career know, there is nothing the man loves more than film and atomic bombs. Happily, Shepard’s new novella, Master of Miniatures combines these two preoccupations into a new and refreshing reiteration of his classic thematic concerns. Although Shepard’s tale of Eiji Tsuburaya, the Japanese special-effects wizard responsible for creating Gojira—the kaiju known more commonly to Western audiences as Godzilla— brings to mind much of his other works, particularly Nosferatu, his 2005 novel about famed director F. W. Murnau and “The Zero-Meter Diving Team,” the deeply-felt account of the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster from Shepard’s 2007 collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, this novella stands on its own as a thoughtful commentary about fallouts both nuclear and domestic.
Much of Jim Shepard’s best fiction depends on a sort of historical pillaging, guided by Shepard’s sharp instincts for selecting the most successful and thematically resonant tidbits of a historical moment. There is frequently a palpable glee to Shepard’s narrative tangents, as if he is just as excited for his reader to discover the thematic harmonics in his stories as he was to discover them in the footnotes of a reference book. But Shepard’s fiction is not about history; his characters are not historical figures (even when they are historical figures.) The secret to Shepard’s historical forays is not how he handles facts, but how he conjures startling imagery and private epiphanies, expanding and enriching our shared history through a hyper-mimetic blurring of the line between fiction and cultural memory. In Master of Miniatures Shepard has transformed a milestone of the atomic age into what Werner Herzog has termed “ecstatic truth,” a sort of documentary history that emphasizes sublime emotional accuracy over the historical factual—what Herzog calls “a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”
So while nuclear anxiety figures heavily in the mind of Gojira and his Japanese creators, Shepard shrewdly underplays the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, the impressionistic centerpiece of Master of Miniatures is the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, a disaster no less deadly for being overshadowed by the nuclear destruction that came to Japan twenty-two years later. For few modern readers will be surprised by descriptions of the mushroom clouds that rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the imagery of the atomic bomb is too present in our collective unconscious and history textbooks to be truly uncanny anymore. By comparison, Shepard’s description of a tornado “so wide it seemed to cover the horizon…spinning and shot through with fire” razing Tokyo in the aftermath of the Great Kantō earthquake feels like a terrifying revelation.
By de-emphasizing the atomic bomb, Shepard makes this story Tsuburaya’s, stripping Gojira of his semiotic weight and finding a second, smaller way of reading one of the most well-known movie monsters: as its father’s child. As Godjira clumsily plows his way through Tokyo in his burdensome low-tech suit, it’s difficult not to think of Tsuburaya and his inexpertly-carried emotional baggage. Shepard excels at writing cold sequestered men who find themselves adrift despite enormous reserves of talent and insight. In this sense, Tsuburaya does not disappoint; Shepard elevates his perfectionism and work ethic to the level of monstrosity. From the opening scene of the novella where Tsuburaya realizes it is the day of the Star Festival— his suffering wife’s favorite holiday—and pretends that he has forgotten so that he can go to work anyway, it is clear what sort of man he is.
But Tsuburaya slowly peels himself like an onion, layer after layer of guilt and regret gathering at his feet: the pain of his perfectionism, a father who disowned him, a dead son, an estranged marriage, and a second son who wants to make all the same mistakes he has. Somehow, Shepard has made us sympathetic towards his monster and the relationship between Tsuburaya and his monster only continues to blur as the story progresses. When Shepard writes:
The face itself is changing through the context of what we’ve seen him go through. By the time the movie ends he’s like a hero whose departure we regret.
The reader must pause for a moment, unsure whether Shepard is gesturing towards Tsuburaya or the rubbery mutant dinosaur he’s birthed.
But as a lonely Tsuburaya broods on an empty train platform at the close of Master of Miniatures, we are reminded that this is not the end of either the man or his monstrous children. The image of Mothra, Tsuburaya’s next monster, is already forming in his mind. These are the truths we know: Life goes on; the monster will always return for a sequel. But it is with a surprising amount of dismay that we also realize that life is actually nothing more than a never-ending series of sequels for our hero, each one more harrowing than the last.
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