You Think That’s Bad (Knopf, 2011) is a collection of stories linked by the style and ironic posture of the author Jim Shepard. A unifying theme is dysfunction in human relationships, especially dysfunction resulting from the conflict of a man’s job or outer interests (mountain climbing, secret operations for the government, avalanche research, filmmaking) with his personal life, specifically with his romantic entanglements with women. Many of these stories seem to argue that the male ego, while needing personal relationships, is prone to drive them away, to invest itself in outside activities that substitute for or destroy personal connections. The world Shepard describes is hostile to such connections.
In the first story, “Minotaur,” a secret weapons operative, compelled not to disclose the secrets of his work, even to his wife, finds himself in a marriage where his wife distrusts everything about him. The secrecy to which his work obligates him is in fact a fundamental part of his nature and a flaw in their marriage. Is their marriage just another pose—a constructed reality? Is her husband’s friendship with another man more serious than she had thought? The indirectness of this story makes it difficult to assay exactly what the issues are between husband and wife. A rereading makes these questions more interesting yet no less clear.
In “The Track of the Assassins” an unmarried wealthy British woman travels into the most desolate locations of the Mideast, searching for the location of the fabled assassins, “that sinister and ancient sect that for two hundred years held the entire East in its reign of terror.” Descriptions of her travels are mixed with her memories of her life as a young girl, and her relationship with her mother and her sister, who recently died. The travels are her expression of guilt and regret for having abandoned her sister. Is she seeking to obliterate herself from the human world? The descriptions of her young life in Italy, and of her travels in the desert, are precisely detailed. Shepard’s lyrical prose style is especially effective.
“In Cretaceous Seas” compares a husband and father to a prehistoric creature. He feels increasingly disconnected from everything: he is “a crappy son, a shitty father, a lazy helpmate, a wreck of a husband. As a pet owner he’s gotten two dogs and a parakeet killed.” As someone who answers questions for other people (his line of work is unclear), he can’t answer the most basic ones for himself. This is a stripped down version of the story John Cheever tells in “A Country Husband.”
In “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” the collapse of a marriage parallels the inundation of the Netherlands by rising seas. Meteorological disaster, global warming, parallels calamity in a marriage.
In Happy with Crocodiles” a World War II infantryman in New Guinea struggles to survive on a muddy mountain while he recalls his troubled girlfriend and her love for his brother. The battle scene descriptions are intense.
In “Your Fate Hurdles Down at You” a research team in 1939 perches on the side of a frozen, snowy Swiss mountain studying defense techniques against avalanches. The narrator and his team are obsessed with the mechanics of snow, of avalanches and their history. His twin brother is killed in an avalanche for which he feels responsible. The story is an exercise is self-reprobation, but it’s also about competition between two brothers for one girl. He is attracted to the girl, but she is attracted to his brother. The narrator’s has distanced himself from personal connections all his life. He is more content on the side of a mountain where he knows that an avalanche will one day sweep him away than he is in the human world.
In “Low Hanging Fruit” a particle physicist describes his fascination with his work and reveals the growing estrangement of his wife. Just as in “Minotaur” and “Your Fate Hurdles Down at You,” and in the story “Gojira: King of the Monsters,” obsessive involvement in work replaces the need for human relationships.
An especially disturbing story in the collection is “Boy’s Town,” about a former soldier recovering from a brain injury and dealing with PTSD going through a final downward spiral. The great element of this story is the narrator’s voice, with conveys his anguish and isolation as well as his irrationality—it’s both comic and frightening.
In “Classical Scenes of Farewell” the assistant of Gilles de Rais, notorious murderer of children in 15th century France, gives his confession and life story before his execution. The story is gruesome, and the author’s use of historical detail creates a sense of absolute authenticity.
Finally, in “Poland is Watching” a member of a Polish winter mountain climbing team talks about his vocation and his relationship with his wife. He’s part of a group attempting to climb Nanga Parbat, the 9th tallest mountain in the world, in the middle of a raging winter storm. Once again a man’s obsession with what he regards as his calling stands in tension with his personal life.
Many of these stories don’t end, or at least don’t offer resolution. We never know if the mountaineer makes it off the mountain, or whether the soldier in New Guinea survives the battle. In most of these stories one’s personal fate stands just beyond the confines of the story. We can sense it looming, we can guess what it is, but the story itself doesn’t describe the moment (the woman in “Assassins” will probably die of malaria and dysentery; the narrator of “Classical Scenes of Farewell” is about to be gruesomely executed; the narrator of “Boy’s Town” will die in a shootout with police). Shepard’s vivid prose style varies from one story to the next, but his use of detail and description imbeds us deep in the minds of his characters and the contexts of the situations his stories describes.