Like You’d Understand, Anyway

By Jim Shepard

Original and Current Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf 

Josh Weil writes: 

Here’s one of the most thrilling experiences possible for a writer, probably for any artist, certainly for me: when, in the midst of watching or hearing or reading some piece of art you feel it connect with you, you know, beyond a doubt, that what you are taking in at that moment will affect everything that, from then on, you will send out into the world. That happened to me the first time I saw the film “Nostalgia” by Andrei Tarkovsky: the hypnotic pacing, the unrelenting gaze. I felt it the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”: that sad wonder, that painful pressure. And that was how it felt when I discovered Jim Shepard’s stories in Like You’d Understand, Anyway.

I hadn’t read his work before. I had no idea what to expect. Which was probably for the best, since this is a collection that defies all expectations. It’s one of the most original and surprising works of fiction that I’ve ever encountered. Spanning over a millennium—from the battle of Marathon to the present day—these stories capture such diverse characters as a chief engineer of the Department of Nuclear Energy at Chernobyl (“Here’s what it’s like to bear up under the burden of so much guilt; everywhere you drag yourself you leave a trail”), an executioner in the French Revolution (“known to the rabble as Sans Farine, in reference to my use of emptied bran sacks to hold the severed heads”), a high school football player in contemporary Texas (“Big Coach calls us by our hometowns if he doesn’t remember our names. I’m Paducah.”); a playwright in ancient Greece (“I am Aeschylus son of Euphorion of Eleusis”), who happens to be the grandfather of modern drama.

But for all the collection’s astonishing historical and geographical reach—here we are in Kazakhstan in 1963, witness to the launch of the first woman in space; here, at “the roof of the world” with a Nazi officer assigned to “incite the Tibetan army against British troops”—its most marvelous surprise is in how real it makes each character seem within his or her world. That’s Shepard’s true genius (or at least a large part of it): he makes these almost incomprehensibly distant characters feel utterly, achingly familiar. He draws you close to them. He makes you love them.

How does he do it? That’s a question I’ve looked at long and hard, struggling to find an answer I can use in my own writing, and, in the end, it comes down to what it takes to create any good character: immense empathy, unflinching honesty, a willingness to hurt them and hurt for them, and—and here is where, I think, Shepard finds his strongest handholds in each of these disparate moments in history—a focus on a particular emotional or psychological wound, a particular kind of pain, that, in its specificity, bores down to something universal, beyond time and place, and attaches his reader to a character living out his life centuries ago. Maybe it’s the desperation to grasp the love of someone who your own actions have pushed away (“My Aeschylus”), maybe it’s the yearning for a sense of worth only a parent can provide (“Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak”), maybe the inescapable pain of living with a responsibility for an unbearable horror (“The Zero Meter Diving Team”). In every story, Shepard locates the place in his characters’ souls where their greatest hurt resides; I can only assume he knows where it is because he can recognize some part of it in himself. I know he makes me see it in myself.

I once read that Eudora Welty, responding I assume to the oft-quoted, misguided chestnut “write what you know,” advised budding writers to “write what you don’t know about what you know.” Jim Shepard writes what he knows (that heart, that wound) about what he doesn’t know (the far-flung world that he simply can’t). What separates these fictions from most historical fiction, what makes them art operating at the highest level as opposed to craft hovering somewhere considerably lower, is that their purpose is to explore the interiors of their characters, not to expose for the reader the outside world that surrounds them. But what makes these stories work so wondrously is that—painting that outside world with moments and details driven by, and always attached to, the inside one—Shepard creates the exteriors of his characters and the time and place in which they reside with such subtle skill that you almost forget how strange it is to be so familiar with such a distant place and time. Notice that, in “Sans Farine,” it’s not just a sack, but a bran sack. The river beside the nuclear reactor in “The Zero Meter Diving Team” isn’t just “the color of tea” but is that way because of “the peat bogs nearby.” I once taught “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak” (the high school football story) to a class of high school kids, one of whom was a star of their football team. When he read how Shepard writes of a hit so hard the little ear pads pop out of the player’s helmet, the footballer said, “That’s totally right! I’ve seen that!”

Now, thanks to this collection of stories, I have too. It’s difficult to define exactly why Like You’d Understand, Anyway hit me so hard. Maybe it was that, when I first read it, I was wrestling with an historical novel, trying to figure out how to make a distant time and place feel immediate without losing the immediacy of character in the effort. This book showed me what it would look like to do it right. Maybe it was the fact that I had just taken a leap into writing a first person narrator of a different century and a different race, and that leap had scared me. These stories, all told in first person by people as different from each other as they must be from the author who made them, made me feel justified in trying. Maybe it was the thrill of discovering a new tool in fiction, a new way into writing: Shepard uses the question form like no other writer I’ve read before, slipping into it at moments of greatest depth and vulnerability, allowing the narrator to touch what might otherwise be too raw, too spot-on, but touch it with the slight uncertainty of asking. “Who knows me better than my brother kynegerios?” the narrator asks in “My Aeschylus.” “Who’s looked after me with more care? Whom have I disappointed as intensely?” In “Sans Farine” the narrator says, “You want to know—all France wants to know—what takes place in the executioner’s mind [….]. Does he eat? Does he sleep? Do his smiles freeze the blood? Is he kind to those he kills? Does he touch his wife on days he works? Does he reach for you with blood-rimmed fingernails? Did he spring full-blown from the black pit to send batch after batch through the guillotine?”

I couldn’t know, when I read that one night in bed alone in a quiet cabin in the mountains, that I was reading the last story in what, for me, would be a life-changing book. I couldn’t know that, in the next story I wrote, my first person narrator would crack himself open with a series of questions. I couldn’t know that this collection’s bravery would make me brave enough to write the novel I would write next. But I knew this: I could feel the magic in this working on me in a way I wouldn’t ever escape. That night, alone in the loft of a quiet cabin, I could hardly turn a page without slapping the book down, sitting bolt upright in bed, exclaiming aloud, my mind racing from excitement at what I was witnessing even as my heart’s walls buckled with the weight of what these sublime stories by Jim Shepard reveal.

Josh Weil is the author of The New Valley, a collection of novellas that won of the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection. A recipient of a Fulbright fellowship, his writing has appeared in The New York TimesGranta, and One Story, among other publications. He is currently the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. (Photo: Ben Weil)

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: Denis Johnson for Tree of Smoke

Fiction Judges That Year: Francine Prose, Andrew Sean Greer, Walter Kirn, David Means, Joy Williams

The Year in Literature:

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature.

More Information: Like You’d Understand, Anyway won the Story Prize in 2007.

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