The Obscure and Subtle Tragedies of Jim Shepard


It must have been about 9 years ago that I first read Jim Shepard. I encountered him at a reading at Marylhurst University, where I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in Writing. And while 9 years is a long time, reflecting back it feels so much longer – like an entirely different life, when I was a completely different person. I went with my good friend (and Backwords co-founder), Jenny Chu, and we must have been a few minutes late because we ended up in the front row – somewhere I wouldn’t typically sit at a reading, or any kind of speaking event, for that matter.

But we were front and center, listening to Shepard read a story from his collection Like You’d Understand Anyway. When the reading finished, Jenny and I grabbed copies of the hard back to be signed. We chatted a bit with Shepard after waiting in the short line. He commented on our excellent “listening faces” and implied we seemed very serious and attentive. He’d read a story called “Courtesy for Beginners,” a winding narrative about a young teen at summer camp struggling with adolescence while he and his family also struggled with his mentally-ill brother. Jenny and I would confirm later that our “listening faces” were really just both of us trying not to cry.

Shepard has a way with history, a way with the future, via an obsession with research. He told us during the reading that often times at the library where he researched his books, the librarians would wonder aloud what on earth he was working on. His stories range in theme but always have the same cutting, masculine style, and more than a few end in abrupt but somehow subtle tragedy. Shepard has a knack for powerful endings, and even though he may foreshadow death and disaster throughout, you never quite see the full truth of it coming.

I’ve read multiple Shepard collections. Certain stories from Like You’d Understand Anyway are engrained in my brain. Most recently I finished his collection You Think That’s Bad only to be reminded how much I adore his writing. His stories are so varied, and yet patterns still emerge. He writes about everything from historical expeditions of unknown lands (“The Track of the Assassins,” “The First South Central Australian Expedition”) to well-known disasters like Chernobyl (“The Zero Meter Diving Team”) and the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake (“Gojira, King of Monsters”) to the quieter, modern tragedies of simply existing in a complicated world (reference back to my choking back tears at the end of “Courtesy for Beginners”). No matter the subject, it’s obvious that an immense amount of energy and dedication is poured into each story.

In an interview for the Paris Review, writer and translator Tim Small introduces Shepard by identifying this variety in his writing:

His subject choices are bold, strange, almost stunning in their range: the love story between two gay engineers on the Hindenburg; a Roman scribe sent to man Hadrian’s Wall; the inventor of the Godzilla epics. His narrator might be the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Aeschylus at the Battle of Marathon or John Entwistle or perhaps a British explorer searching for a sea in the middle of the Australian desert.

Small goes on to ask Shepard about the work he puts into his stories, calling out the fact that the same level of work could easily amount to a novel. Shepard replies:

My friend Ron Hansen, the novelist, always says to me: ‘You’re crazy! You know, you did eight months of research and all you got out of it is a story. I would get a four-hundred-page novel and make a lot more money.’ But part of it is also that, you know, it doesn’t feel like drudgery to me. If I’m reading about these subjects, it’s because I’m strange enough to want to be interested in them anyway.

And while I haven’t read his newest collection The World to Come, The New York Times review leads me to believe this hasn’t changed: “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.”

I am not generally a fan of historical fiction, but Shepard’s stories are so disparate that they can’t be pigeon-holed into that category. Perhaps because they are so odd. Perhaps because in his more recent collections, he tells them in the first person – these impossible characters that I can’t imagine thinking up in all of their impossible worlds. I enjoy the visceral reactions I have to his endings – to sand filling the mouth of an explorer dying in Australia, to the first person explanation of exactly how an avalanche researcher’s body will be found covered by snow, to a middle-aged PTSD victim waiting for his own capture after randomly shooting his prized Desert Eagle into the house of his dream girl.

In an interview for Electric Lit, Shepard talks more about what leads his stories toward tragedy:

I’ve always been interested in self-destructive behavior, since we’re so good at it as both individuals and an aggregate. And connected to that, I’ve also always been drawn to catastrophe as a subject, particularly man-made catastrophe…I’m relatively obsessed with the issue of agency: with that portion of responsibility that we have for what happens to us.

His stories often step far outside of my own scope in subject, but hold true to a universal theme in feeling. His draw toward our tendency for self destruction often acts as the glue that holds the narrative together. The same NYT article sums it up well: “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.”

When we were having our books signed 9 years ago, the subject of my upcoming wedding somehow worked its way to the surface. Shepard told me he was surprised to hear that I was getting married. In our short interaction he had determined that I didn’t seem the type. Or maybe it was simply because I was so young. In my book he inscribed For Ginger, who’s the alpha female —! Congratulations—. It’s my favorite author inscription I’ve received (and there are some other great contenders) and another reason Shepard is dear to me as a writer. Looking back, it may have been a foreshadow of the next chapter of my own story. Of everything I was going to lose and fight to get back, of my own small tragedy waiting to begin. The world was coming for me, but somehow he was telling me that I wouldn’t be swept away.

Stay Backwords,

Ginger Duncan

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