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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