You Think That's Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard
End times are as rich a subject as was, in former literary eras, the ends of the physical world, the known and navigable earth. Terminus was always the inevitable outcome of the Greek telos, or movement toward something, anything. “The love of form,” Louise Glück has it in one poem, “is a love of endings.” What happens last casts its light back to commencement, the circle completed, the system of branching paths converging again.
For centuries, the end of time was almost always apocalyptic and religious. Vico’s historical cycles and Yeats’s gyres (“event-funnels”) were strange but never quite distinct variations on theological finalities. The final earthly chapter of the race always seemed to blow open the doors of a kind of afterlife, paradisical with angels on clouds or fiery and score-settling, with brimstone seated demons aiming their pitchforks. But what would a non-afterlife afterlife look like?
While the natural world tapered off in these scenarios, few if any simply involved what happens -- what people are forced to do -- when their ecosystems fail them. The most purely secular end-times are those of societies that have beaten back the threats of nature and only nature, the seemingly inevitable that lies waiting beyond a dyke or runs like a waterfall in front of your advancing canoe.
Non-religious historical terminations are the fascinating province of Jim Shepard’s new book of stories, appropriately titled with the gallows aside of You Think That’s Bad. The end-times device enables him to portray communities that must reinvent their barriers against chaos and the eroding, collective mental state created thereby. The theme is set in the now near-legendary story “The Netherlands Lives With Water.” Bland statistical entries are pierced by little episodes of vivid horror. The reader is like a spectator at the Eichmann trial, glimpsing hollow-eyed pure suffering staring out from behind bureaucratic “transport and elimination” data.
In ”Netherlands,” the sameness of historical statistics -- land reclamation from coastal waters, its persistence and stability -- hold off disaster for generations. The Dutch village characters believe that since their ancestors were able, through sheer, impressive collective elbow grease, to keep the “perilous flood” at bay for so long, they can now simply continue doing so. They have compartmentalized and chosen to ignore unprecedented meteorological developments, like the ice melts several thousand miles north of them and the resulting rising seas. They whistle while they work as higher and higher waves rise beyond the flood barriers, like monster’s arms in old Argossic maps. Shepard’s omniscient narrator furnishes the calming statistics, the ones that indicate (like Russell’s classic warning about induction) that since past futures have resembled past pasts, then future futures will resemble past futures. These are delivered with droll, utterly brilliant singularity: “Really, as long as we’ve existed, we’ve had cooperative water management before we had a state.”
But the anecdotal characters rush in here, discussing dike breaches in tales of wandering in water up to their armpits, of realizing that drowned neighbors won’t immediately are not yet floating past because a body takes days before bloating restores enough air for it to surface. Shepard probes the daily terror and nightmares of Rotterdam’s citizens, showing how the unprecedented can make whole social orders fray, fly apart, and really never come back again.
And it isn’t always water that does it. In “The Track of the Assassins,” a 1930s female British explorer seeks out the trail of Hassan-i-Sabbah, the 12th-century Shia acolyte who used systematic murder as a political tool, and whose ascendancy spread from northern Persia west through the Mediterranean. She impresses her guides with her ability to re-create Midieval desert intrigues, and in that way provide an afterlife for a disfavored, obscure historical figure and his band of followers. But she soon contracts malaria, and sees herself as dissipating in the sands, traceless, an anti-Ozymandias:
"I have more with which to pay you [guides], once we return,” I manage to tell them. Ismail makes a brief gesture as if to clarify that it needn’t be discussed. “God give you strength,” he murmurs as we exchange smiles: fellow travelers. Aziz appears beside him. My eyes close under the weight of so much sadness and gratitude. And out of courtesy we say goodnight to one another with our hands upon our breasts.
Central to these narratives are the stories we tell ourselves to continue evasion of the inevitable, the survival tool that is compartmentalization. We disconnect from ourselves, floating transcendental egos that look down upon the flesh and blood bodies we know will perish or disappoint those emotionally invested in us. Thus the weakening of familial bonds is also presented as a kind of time-end. In “Gojira, King of the Monsters,” Shepard gives us Eiji Tsuburaya, the actual Japanese special effects czar who created the original film Godzilla. His obsession with the neatness and easy success of model-building reflects an inability to deal with the wreckage of his family life, where there are no instructions, no blueprints, no strings to manipulate the behavior of the heart.
Emotional bonds as world-continuing messes are abundant here. The finality of death, especially if selected and embraced, itself is a kind of afterlife of the will, isolated within a minute of reflection, whatever may happen to the soul afterward. In “Happy With Crocodiles,” the narrator, pinned down in World War II Indochinese combat, realizes he really doesn’t want the messiness of a future with the girl who awaits his return. There is something safer, more manageable, if you will, about the cold of the grave that the sprawl and error of a human relationship. The first-person narrator (there are many) in these stories nudge us up to the edge of their existence, leaving us simultaneously intoxicated and despairing. The protagonist of “Boy’s Town” is a combat veteran at the end of his tether, expressing the peculiar tension and release of letting everything go: “Most people don’t know what it’s like to look down the road and see there’s nothing there,” he says. “You try to tell somebody that but they just look at you -- I don’t know why people need to hear the same thing ten thousand times, but they do.”
Civilization, Shepard reminds us, can help us fend off thoughts of extinction. The abundance of characters and activity around us appear to validate our natural hopefulness, our instinctual sense of our own immortality. But then comes the ultimate, necessary solipsism, the epiphany of the abyss: the dike wall sloshing with frosty waves, the sand blowing over our blankets, the desolation of a stifling future with a family we appear to know less and less each passing day. And finally the walls of the grave, welcoming in its trimness, fitting us like the suit we were eventually made for.
You Think That's Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard