You Think That’s Bad

Jim Shepard

The most frequent comment I see about Jim Shepard’s writing is that he attacks such a wide variety of worlds, in terms of places and places in time. It seems to go against the “write what you know” commandment passed down to aspiring writers, except each story feels convincingly accurate; he is apparently able to research well and therefore know more than the average person. In this collection among the offerings the characters include is a “black world” operative at Los Alamos, a soldier on Papua New Guinea during WWII, the creator of Godzilla, the French child serial killer Gilles de Rais, and a group of Polish climbers attempting a winter expedition in the Himalayas.

My favorite in the collection is “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” a story set in the near future where climate change has set the scene for disaster for the low-lying country, and Dutch engineers have emerged as the most promising hope for managing the inevitable global crisis. Originally written for McSweeney’s Issue 32, where all the stories were set 25 years in the future, Shepard was funded to travel to the Netherlands to prepare for the story. A Just Recompense relates from the original contributor’s notes how:

[Shepard] describes how helpful the Dutch were, in providing information, escorting him to various locations: “I kept reminding everyone, somewhat meekly, that I was only writing a short story for a magazine called McSweeney’s, and not a cover article for The New York Times Magazine, but they all seemed unfazed. I was a writer who shared their interests, and was in need of help. So they helped.”

The result is an engrossing story where the details of the impending danger as well as the history of the Netherlands’ battle with water (the protagonist survived the North Sea flood of 1953) are technically just a backdrop for a character struggling to cope with an aging mother and a loss of openness between him and his wife.

Trying to find a common ground between the characters, you may find a sense of isolation in each of these stories, often paired with some style of self-centeredness that serves as the root cause of distance from others. Yet sometimes that selfishness manages to serve a common good, as in the five-page story”Low-Hanging Fruit” about a particle physicist:

“What are you really looking for?” my wife said to me, last thing, before I left. What we’re all looking for. That saving thing, I think: something that right now is beyond our ability to even imagine.

See also: Elizabeth Minkel at The New Yorker’s Book Bench connects “The Netherlands Lives with Water” to Theo Jansen’s incredible Strandbeests the week that Hurricane Irene landed.