You Think That’s Bad Review
In 2002, Michael Chabon wrote an essay for McSweeney’s that defined two kinds of short stories: “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” and “plot” stories usually found in genre fiction (e.g. detective, horror, suspense, romance, historical fiction, etc.) The former boasts introspective characters, dynamic prose, and “lofty thematic resonance”; the latter, fast-moving narratives, clever twists, and writing that’s actually fun to read. Let’s imagine this binary as a spectrum: Flannery O’Connor sits on one side, Stephen King is on the other. Smack dab in the middle is National Book Award Finalist Jim Shepard: Williams College creative writing professor, and one of the best American short story writers currently published. His latest book, You Think That’s Bad, might be his best collection yet. It blurs the line between genre and literary fiction and makes the aforementioned binary opposition look pretty silly.
You might find You Think That’s Bad on a table labeled, “Great Dad’s Day Read’s!” at Barnes and Nobel. That makes sense. Shepard’s stories are almost always told through the first person perspective of hyper-masculine protagonists–soldiers, mountain climbers, scientists, spies, and general adventurers. These characters show up in a variety of–meticulously researched–time periods, allowing Shepard to make good use of the seventy-some texts referenced in the acknowledgements’ bibliography. Each story reads fast and can be digested in one sitting (most are about 20 pages). You probably could use Shepard’s stories to convince men (and teenage boys) who don’t read often that books are “totally badass.”
But, Shepard’s prose sets him apart from the other “pulp” writers you’ll find on the Dad’s Table. His style osculates between visceral imagery, obscure historical facts, and hyper-distilled existential profundities. For example:
Visceral Imagery–First Western Woman to Explore the Arabian Desert: “The sky at sunrise was clear, barring one pink cloud. We peered for our bedrolls at a radiant solitude and a horizon of mountain ranges. The only other sound as my companions began the breakfast fire was that of the wind on the sand, endless grains slipping into and bouncing out of equally endless hollows (16).
Obscure Historical Fact–Mountain Climber: “When not working, Kolesniak read to us aloud from something entitled Reign of Blood, about Idi Amin’s dictatorship. From this we learned that Amin kept his ex-wives severed heads in his kitchen freezer in order to keep his current wife in line (207-8).
Existential Profundity–Particle Physicist: “The overarching lesson from science in the last century…is that my experience isn’t going to help all that much, not in terms of providing a guide to yours (117).
Shepard converges non-fiction, philosophy and adventure; then, synthesizes them into eclectic mix that seems to consciously paying homage to other pulp idols. “Minotaur”–a look at the lives of spies and the consequences of secret keeping–could have been a more-serious Ian Flemming story. “Boys Town”–a stark profile of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder–has the pessimism of 70’s Bukowski or the depression of Nick Flynn (only our saddest readers know that one).
Aesthetics and technical achievement aside, Shepard examines the source of conflict that marked his previous work from a totally different angle. His novel, Project X, is a response to the Columbine Massacre and an exploration of a troubled teenage psyche; his last story collection, Like You’d Understand Anyway, looked at a similar theme of sons pining for their father’s attentions (“Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak”), sibling rivalries (“The Zero Meter Diving Team”) and more angsty adolescents (“Courtesy for Beginners”). In You Think That’s Bad, Shepard mostly instead focuses on the Father point of view. A theme in YTTB is deadbeat-dads with important jobs: particle physicists (“Low Hanging Fruit”), climate scientists (“The Netherlands Lives with Water”), high profile business men (“In Cretaceous Seas”) and–from my favorite story of the collection–the creator of Godzilla (“Gojira, King of the Monsters”). These are men who chose work over family; Shepard lets them squirm so we can watch the consequences.
And of course there’s mountain climbers! Two stories in YTTB deal with mountaineers: one from the perspective of a man out to climb a mountain to avenge his brother accidental-avalanche death, the other focuses on Poland’s best mountain climbers scaling one of the world’s tallest mountains and restore pride to their motherland.–however, their wives see their mountain climbing much differently. A mountain climber is the perfect metonymy for the type of man Shepard explores in YTTB. A man who is driven to success, yet is cold, distant, and immersed entirely in himself. These characters are responsible for their own unhappiness because they were damned by circumstance, locale, or maybe biology. Shepard’s genre/time-period hopping drives home a clear message: human existence is founded upon discontent. Perhaps the title is saying, if you think you’ve got it bad, read these eleven stories to see how wrong you are. The only “good” thing on which we can consistently rely is the next page of a Jim Shepard story.
Nick Martin is a writer from Urbana, Illinois. His primary interests are pop-culture criticism, graphic novels and comicbooks, contemporary fiction, and 20th century history/philosophy. When he’s not writing, Nick likes to trim his mustache and tell jokes.