The first story in Jim Shepard’s new collection, entitled “The Zero Meter Diving Team”, takes place in Chernobyl as the nuclear plant melts down. If the notion of having this size an atrocity happen in 20 or so pages seems insurmountably ambitious, that’s because it is. But Shepard is smart, and one hell of storyteller. He captures the accident, but instead focuses on a family drama at the center of the story, two brothers trying to come together and accept past mistakes in the midst of chaos.
This is certainly not the first time Shepard has mined historic catastrophe — he wrote of two male lovers working on the Hindenburg in the brilliant “Love and Hydrogen” — and it isn’t the only time he does in Like You’d Understand, Anyway. Moving from story to story in this collection, there’s a Spartan sentry who survives a terrible enemy attack, an account of the ill-fated and torturously long first expedition across Australia, and even Aeschylus at Marathon. And butting right up against these stories are ones about teenagers in Connecticut watching Merv Griffin, or playing high school football in Texas, or being stuck at a summer camp by their folks.
What makes these stories, and the collection as a whole, so amazing is Shepard’s ability to capture each voice perfectly. Through vocabulary and syntax, Shepard quantum leaps through time in the book, capturing the voice of a Spartan soldier as convincingly as he does a crass-talking Texan linebacker. His voices are distinct but never overwrought, he captures the sound of each character while still keeping his language crisp, his sentences lean and cutting. With this new book, Shepard has established himself as modern fiction’s master of voice.
However, Shepard’s success in Like You’d Understand, Anyway is not one of mere ventriloquism. We get deep inside each and every one of these characters, and feel their complicated pain. We ache for the same contact the female cosmonaut in “Eros 7” aches for. We empathize with her when she forgets her duties in the face of a consuming and unrequited love. We feel the confusion of the narrator in “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian”, who is still wondering, as an adult, why he set off his volatile brother for seemingly no reason as a child.
The people of Shepard’s stories often walk right into calamity. And if their ability to fail isn’t surprising, their reactions to their disappointments, and their desire to strive despite being past the point of no return is what makes these stories so deeply human and resonant. Along with this menagerie of voices, Shepard uses structure to constrict the coil all the tighter. The diary entries in “The First South Central Australian Expedition” pile up on each other as the pages go on. While the group trudges further and further into trouble, as the land dries up around them and the sun beats down, the entries grow more anemic and confused, and when you reach the journey’s inevitable end, the reader is as spent as the characters.
The question that is inevitably raised by such a seemingly disparate collection of stories is how they come together. It would seem impossible for, say, the post-Revolution French executioner in “Sans Farine” to have anything in common with the Texan linebacker in “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak”. But the connections are there. Many of these characters, whether in ancient Rome or 20th-century Connecticut, are trying to heal family rifts or make connections they’ve never had. The narrator in “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak” is hitting everyone in sight, hoping to cross his estranged father’s path in the playoffs. In “Sans Farine”, the narrator is caught between his dedication to his duties and his ever-distant wife. These characters are often terribly flawed in their decision making and in their logic, but the sheer velocity with which they go at what they are sure they need to survive until tomorrow is what makes each story as brilliant as the last.
There is even a slight political bent to these stories, that often — particularly in the more historic stories — have government-supported projects breaking down into quixotic quagmires. The stories are full of people knowingly taking on more than they could possibly handle and standing resolute, if a little broken, in the face of their failures. The parallels between the failure of an overextended Australian expedition, for example, and our current Middle Eastern woes are easy to identify, but Shepard merely hints at those connections and is never dragged down by any pedantic soapbox posturing. Rather than use these stories to condemn US Foreign Policy, Shepard mines these fragile psyches to understand why we do the inexplicable things we do.
In the end Shepard is dedicated to his characters, and not the Oprah-stamped notion that literature should, in one way or another, be instructional. You can tell it pains him to see his characters fall as they do, that if he could he’d make them all come out okay. But, again, Shepard’s too smart for that. He doesn’t know the answers to his characters’ questions any more than they do, but he sure as hell knows how to ask them.