Like You’d Understand, Anyway. Jim Shepard. Short Fiction Collection.
I feel a little bit like I’m the guy Shepard is talking to in the title. Because, sometimes, I just didn’t understand (anyway?). There were stories in this collection that I absolutely adored (The Zero Meter Diving Team; Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian; The First South Central Australian Expedition; Eros 7; Courtesy for Beginners; and Sans Farine) but others left me bored and frustrated.
I don’t blame Shepard though, he’s a beautiful writer, and I suspect that it’s more my failing as a reader. Shepard deals largely in this collection with brotherly relationships – and I certainly don’t have a problem with brotherly relationships, but as a woman, it’s not my most relatable subject matter…and so when most of the stories trend this way (as they do) I found myself a little bored.
Additionally, Shepard writes in a fantastically descriptive way and I just generally prefer a more sparse style. For example, in Eros 7, which turned out to be one of my favorite stories, the first line that really truly drew me in was:
“I will become, then, the tenth person, the sixth Russian, and the first woman in space.”
Great sentence, but it comes three paragraphs in, and buried at the end of one. Now, this doesn’t matter too much when I’m reading a collection, because I’ve already committed to (and likely purchased) the book, but if I’m reading a story in a literary magazine, then if you don’t have a line that draws me in before the third paragraph, I’ve probably already put your piece down.
Chalk it up to a short attention span and (relative) youth I guess and I’m happy to take the blame for it…but as a writer of both full length and short fiction works I guess I feel like it’s asking for a lot these days to make me wait three or four paragraphs for the great sentence that maybe just should have been the first line. Perhaps more established writers like Shepard (he’s previously published the novel Project X and Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories as well as a handful of other works including five more novels) have the clout, either through name or reputation that better readers than me will hang in there with him regardless of when the hook comes in the story. Certainly all of the pieces in this collection were published by incredibly prestigious publications (including McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, and Tin House) – but I don’t honestly believe that a less established writer would be given such a long rope…and that pisses me off a little bit.
In the end, I can’t condemn the collection, beyond having a fantastic title and cover (which are two of my “should I buy it benchmarks”), the stories, even the ones that didn’t wow me, were still incredibly well crafted and strong – telling tales that quite frankly – may be beyond me. But it just did not speak to me personally or emotionally. I got bogged down in descriptive details that I didn’t care about and even had trouble understanding and connecting to the various relationships Shepard presented. When it worked for me (Courtesy for Beginners) it worked so very well, but when it didn’t (My Aescheylus) I was epically disappointed.
I’m going to log it at 3 Stars – solidly in the middle – with the knowledge that it probably deserves better. Maybe I’ll try it again in another couple years and see if I’ve matured to Shepard’s level.
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