“Enough greatness to justify a life’s work in the form”

Here’s a piece by Justin Taylor on Bookforum.  This is just an excerpt:

You Think That’s Bad contains three new entries in the Shepard WWII catalogue. “Happy with Crocodiles” follows a US battalion from the Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard to Papua New Guinea, where they grow restive waiting for orders or action. The boys are young, underequipped, bedeviled by the climate, and bemused by the local aborigines. As the downtime piles up and the humidity spoils even the canned food, the narrator sorts out memories of an older brother who may have had ulterior motives for pushing him to marry his high school sweetheart. It’s a story of trust and betrayal that gradually transforms into a Nabokovian tangle of thorns.

“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” is a magnificent war story despite having no war in it. A team of Swiss avalanche researchers who call themselves the Frozen Idiots have “volunteered to spend the coldest winter in recent memory in a little hut perched on a wind-blasted slope . . . 3,500 meters above Davos.” The story’s present day is 1939, but the narrator is haunted by memories of a twin brother, Willi, whose adolescent death from shock a few days after an avalanche ruined the family and drove their mother to obsessive study of the physical properties of snow. It is her amateur scholarship that the narrator seeks to build on. As another member of the team remarks, “At certain altitudes, nothing might be less like a particular location than that same location under different conditions.” This wry, irrefutable nod toward the war (barely imaginable in ’39, but in retrospect looming) dances right up to the edge of portentousness without falling over the side. The quote could serve as the motto of the collection.

Set in Japan in 1954, “Gojira, King of the Monsters” tells the story of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special-effects innovator who brought the world Rodan, Mothra, Ultraman, and, most important, Godzilla. It is a rare departure from the first person for Shepard (there are two in YTTB; LYUA contained none; there are six in the entire Love and Hydrogen) and he does not stray far. We are with Tsuburaya at all times and have access to his inner life. But the small space between narrator and protagonist is essential. Tsuburaya considers the destruction wrought by the Allied forces during the war (atomic bombs as well as merciless fire raids) in light of the 1923 earthquake that leveled Tokyo and Yokohama a generation earlier (his father was one of the many thousands killed). These memories of apocalyptic devastation—the first disaster natural, the second man-made—contrast with those of a baby daughter who died peacefully in her sleep years before. All the while, he’s at work dreaming up the ultimate movie monster, as well as working out the technical challenges of actually building and filming the thing.

“Gojira” is without question the collection’s pièce de résistance. It brings all of Shepard’s energies to apotheosis and should have been the last story in the book—or, failing that, the first one. It is difficult, if you’re reading straight through, to see the final three stories as much more than afterthoughts, particularly the paint-by-numbers “Boys Town,” about an Iraq-war veteran with PTSD, which takes its title from the Spencer Tracy film of the same name.

Still, Shepard’s rare failures are more interesting than a lot of other writers’ successes, and he never commands less than your full attention. When the narrator of “Boys Town” says that “what I did was, in life you’re supposed to leave yourself an out, and I didn’t,” you feel for him, no matter that his personal apocalypse has been predictable (and predicted) more or less from the story’s start. In the last story, “Poland Is Watching,” a winter mountaineer on the verge of collapse approaches the summit of deadly Nanga Parbat. Against all odds (and reason), he will attempt the final ascent. When he tells of the need to forge “connections to this wild and beautiful earth,” he not only inspires belief and empathy, but seems to speak for every voice in the whole Jim Shepard catalogue, perhaps even for the author himself.

The full post can be found here.

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