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'You Think That's Bad': Delving Into Disaster, In Prose

You Think That's Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard

It's the near future in Rotterdam, South Holland, and climate change has caused the glaciers of Africa and the Rocky Mountains to disappear. Worldwide, ice sheets have collapsed and countries have flooded to the point of being nearly uninhabitable. The narrator of "The Netherlands Lives with Water," a hydraulic engineer, tries to save his marriage while simultaneously racing to protect his nation from a flood that could kill thousands. He's stoic, but not optimistic: "At this point each of us understands privately that we're operating under the banner of lost control."

"The Netherlands" isn't the only story about disaster and lost control in Jim Shepard's new collection, You Think That's Bad, though it might be the most striking one. Shepard, author of the acclaimed story collections Love and Hydrogen (2004) and Like You'd Understand, Anyway (2007), is a master not only of the short story, but also of the prose of pain, disappointment and powerlessness. Each of the 11 stories in his new book is heartbreaking and true, and not one is less than perfect.

Shepard's evocation of catastrophes both small and large, real and fictional, is an amazing study in contrast and loss, and it's exquisitely written.

You Think That's Bad is perhaps more preoccupied with disaster than any of Shepard's previous works, with the possible exception of his brilliant 2004 novel Project X, the story of a school shooting. In "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," a group of scientists lives on a Swiss mountain under the constant threat of avalanche. The narrator of "Boys Town," a war veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder, makes a series of terrible decisions until he's cornered both physically and emotionally. "Classical Scenes of Farewell," a story of a French aristocrat who sexually abuses and murders a series of young boys, is so raw, unsparing and stark, it's almost impossible to read in one sitting.

Jim Shepard is a professor of film and creative writing at Williams College. He has been published in <em>Granta</em>, <em>McSweeney's</em>, and <em>The New Yorker</em>, among other publications.
/ Michael Lionstar
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Jim Shepard is a professor of film and creative writing at Williams College. He has been published in <em>Granta</em>, <em>McSweeney's</em>, and <em>The New Yorker</em>, among other publications.

Some of Shepard's disasters are writ smaller, but are no less tragic. The most accomplished story in the book, "Gojira, King of the Monsters," follows the unhappy life of Eiji Tsuburuya, the special-effects director responsible for the Godzilla movies. Previously published as a stand-alone book by Solid Objects, under the title Master of Miniatures, "Gojira" is one of the best American short stories in years — Shepard's evocation of catastrophes both small and large, real and fictional, is an amazing study in contrast and loss, and it's exquisitely written.

Over the past few weeks, we've probably all sat in front of our computers or televisions, refreshing our browsers or changing channels every few minutes, wondering how much more bad news the world can take. Very few of us, however, can ever know how the devastation really feels. Jim Shepard's beautiful, essential stories might not change that, but they do prove that he's one of the most perceptive, intelligent and fearless writers of fiction in America today. What we learn from pain isn't up to us, after all, but what we learn from Shepard is this: pain is pain, there are no small tragedies, and all disasters are unnatural.

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