BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Jim Shepard
Best ebook deal: Barnes & Noble
Throughout this collection, Jim Shepard demonstrates his expertise in writing varied stories, playing with voice and mood, and delivering an array of diverse tales. Whether you approach the stories in the presented order or pick at them like a buffet, the first thing you’ll notice when beginning the second story you read is how different the voice is from the previous story.
Sometimes when writers work in this mode the authorial voice becomes washy or, worse, lost amid the competing characters. Other times when collections rely on a diversity of voices, the strength of a collection can be diminished by a few weaker entries in an otherwise competent assortment of character studies.
Thankfully, though he employs a wide range of characters, eras, and voices, neither of these are the case in Like You’d Understand, Anyway.
Shepard moves effortlessly from formal turn of the century diary entries, to crass high school sports jargon, Aeschylus, a cryptozoologist, a confused child at a miserable summer camp, and a space-race female cosmonaut, amidst others. Take the ending of “The First South Central Australian Expedition”:
I heard the slosh and slap of water in a great bay. I knew I had had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was. The wind had picked up. My ears filled with sound. The blackness of a sandstorm dropped over the canyon rim like a cloak. Its force turned my friend onto his side. It force turned my face to the rock. I saw strange wraiths. Wormlike, coiling figures. Terrible faces. My eyes clogged with grit. I hoped they would fill with everything they needed. While my throat filled with what poured over the canyon rim. And my heart filled with the rest.
and compare that to the opening narrated by a young footballer in “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak”:
Guy’s hurt? Fuck ‘im. Guy can’t get up, play still going? Run his ass over. Whistle’s blown? Stretcher bearer time. Grab a blow and let the Sisters of Mercy do their thing.
The story does not rely on convincing character voices alone, though. Shepard’s writing is crisp and engaging. And much of what holds the collection together is a unified thematic of self-realization. Many of the narrators in this collection grapple with inward reflection amid a traumatic or at least touchstone moment in their lives.
The supporting characters in the stories are for the most part quite strong as well, providing the opportunity for the epiphanic moments the stories each build to. In part due to the varied casts, and in part to the strength of the language, the stories never feel formulaic or forced.
A nice example of such a character’s struggle can be seen through the aforemetioned female cosmonaut in “Eros 7”:
Feeling are unruly. You tell them one thing and they tell you something else. When I was young and read about immaturity in books, I never encountered myself, but when I read about grownups, I did. That always left me pleased. Now I seem incapable of contemplation. I’ll think the agitation has ended but then from somewhere hope will stir, swelling until it dominates my chest, like the moment when a level ski encounters and unexpectedly steep drop: it’s joy, but joy attenuated with dread.
This excellent collection is full of engaging and fairly quick stories that deliver entertainment as well as literary satisfaction. Any reader who enjoys literary short story collections, especially diverse ones, will certainly find plenty of pleasure in this book. (My personal favorites: “Ancestral Legacies” and “Courtesy for Beginners.”)