Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Short Story Corner: Jim Shepard: Love and Hydrogen and You Think That’s Bad

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've read two Jim Shepard collections in recent months.

Love and Hydrogen: New and Selection Stories (2004)

Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected StoriesThis book features 22 short stories, a number of which appeared in Shepard’s first collection, Batting Against Castro. I really enjoyed Love and Hydrogen, but I’m just gonna come right out and say it: the book is too long.* It feels like a compendium rather than a collection. I've written elsewhere about my preference forsingle collections over best ofs, and it’s a similar thing here. Most of the stories were great, some weren’t, and it was hard to think about this book as a single entity. More on it shortly.

You Think That’s Bad (2011)

You Think That's Bad: StoriesShepard’s fourth (or 3.5th) collection, however, is about the right size: 11 stories, some of them quite long. Together these 225 pages feel like a comprehensible mass. Perhaps too comprehensible. After a while, it began to feel as if each story was a retelling of the same story: taciturn male struggles to connect with those around him. Even if this is true for 10 out of the 11 stories (11 if you accept the female narrator of ‘The Track of Assassins’ is just another variation on this same central character), Shepard gets away with it because he overlays the most interesting and varied plots and settings over top of the same framework.

So we get a guy who works in black-ops military technology, a trek into the Persian mountains, Dutch water engineers bracing as the near future’s floodwaters rise, a battalion in ‘Nam, a team of scientists researching avalanches above a Swiss village, a physicist working for CERN, the special effects wizard behind Godzilla, a gruesome tale of child murder in Fifteenth Century France and a team of Polish Winter Mountaineers.
Reading a Shepard short story is like reading a Wikipedia entry as if it was written by Richard Ford. Well, most of the time. Some, like ‘Cretaceous Seas’ are shorter, voice driven pieces. Others, ‘like ‘Boys Town’ are more contemporary ‘loser’ stories, with less scope for encyclopaedic knowledge. The sort of thing George Saunders does about sixteen times better.

Three more things that bugged me:

1. The ubiquity of the present tense. Call me old school, but it’s only been the current default setting for literary short fiction for a short time and I don’t think it will remain the default for long.

2. There are a lot of endings (in this collection and in Love and Hydrogen) where characters are about to die (of thirst, in an avalanche, in battle, in a police shoot out, in a Messerschmitt 163...) or at least get really messed up. In order to extricate the narrator from the plot a moment before they die, Shepard grants them a moment of reflection where they’re allowed to say something sage and inscrutable, like:
“They’ve ensured that we’ve progressed this far, and no farther, when constructing our connections to this wild and beautiful earth.” (‘Poland is Watching’)
In isolation, each ending is okay, but after two or three it feels like a tic, after four or five: a crutch.

3. There’s a lot of stuff about national identity that sounds like it’s coming from an American rather than a real Dutchman or Pole or Brit.

In ‘The Netherlands Lives with Water’, the Dutch narrator is full of homilies about his countrymen. 
“Passion in Dutch meetings in punished by being ignored.” 
“She’s only trying to hedge her best, I tell myself to combat the panic. Our country’s all about spreading risk around.” 
To me this screams fugazi. Do I think, ‘Oh, that’s such a Kiwi thing to say’? Only if I’m overseas at the time. I’m largely blind to national traits while living in New Zealand. It may suit Shepard’s Dutch story to make all these Dutch comments, but that just puts a wall between me and his character.

These three bugbears are also present in Love and Hydrogen, but there’s more diversity. It’s not all great ‘color’ (in that terrible American sense of ‘color commentary’ during a sporting contest to obscure the fact this is game number 61 in a season of 82 and essentially meaningless) over the same frame.

‘The Gun Lobby’, which opens the collection, is a contemporary loser story, but it’s bigger and bolder than ‘Boys Town’: the loser’s wife holds him hostage with weapons sourced from his gun-dealing buddy.

‘John Ashcroft: More Important Things Than Me’ is a kind of political diary that starts out like a piece of McSweeny-ish irony at the expense of an earnest Republican, but turns out to be a sweet and heartbreaking meditation on fathers, sons and loss.

‘Alicia and Emmett with the 17th Lancers at Balaclava’ takes the isolated, obsessive male struggling to connect with his family life and runs it on two parallel planes: 1) he’s the historical advisor on a movie about the charge of the Light Brigade 2) he’s actually taking part on the charge of the Light Brigade.

‘Runway’ has the kind of set up that I expected to end with a number 2 (dude about to die... story ends): a man starts lying down on an airport runway, moving further and further up the tarmac over a series of nights, getting closer and closer to the squash zone. I’m not sure I’m happy with the story’s actual ending, but it was pleasing to see another route taken.

There’s also a bit of number 3 (national identity malarkey), but because it’s embedded in possibly the greatest short story about sport that I’ve ever read (‘Ajax is all about attack’; about the Dutch football team in the sixties) I forgive it completely.**

‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ follows a similar pattern to ‘Ajax is All About Attack’ except it’s an insider’s view of the band The Who, and what made them special. It’s a bold move to make John Entwistle your narrator and make him weave in and out of soundbites and urban legends, but it is possibly the greatest short story about rock music that I’ve ever read.***

These kinds of stories take cajones. They take research. And they take incredible skill to find a believable voice and a narrative with any kind of drive.

Love and Hydrogen may have too many stories, but it surely contains greatness.

If not for ‘Ajax’, ‘Batting Against Castro’ might be the best sports short story I’ve read.

‘Love and Hydrogen’ might be the best ‘two men in love’ short story I’ve read (and it just so happens to take place on board the Hindenberg).

The book is lousy with superlative, or near-superlative, stories. And for that reason, I can overlook the overstuffing, the lack of whole-ness, and proclaim it an awesome book.


* Yes, I realise the hypocrisy, given my SS collection featured eighteen stories and tipped the scales at 315 pages. Love and Hydrogen is only 320 pages in paperback, but there’s a lot more words on each of those pages... And if I was to do it all again, I’d probably roll with two or three less stories in A Man Melting.

** It’s also worth nothing that the narrator, Velibor Vasovic, is not Dutch, so it’s likely his antennae is up and detecting national quirks. He can say something like, “Even then I could see that it was very Dutch to look for the simple solution,” and get away with it.

And the stuff about his native Yugoslavia is couched in terms of regional differences (he’s from the hills; in Zugubic rebelliousness was “old farmers fondling their donkeys in public”) or specific to individuals, so his utterances are believable.

But even this tactic of one non-American looking at the inhabitants of a foreign country can grate after a while, like the Czech resistance fighter who is about to be captured by Nazis in ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’: “Being German, they spent an hour boxing in the square, eradicating escape routes.”

*** Though I did wonder how Shepard got permission to quote Who song lyrics in the story. Perhaps Playboy, who first published the story, fronted the $$$?

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