Friday, July 6, 2007

Found in Ploughshares: Fiction from Jim Shepard

"Two and a half weeks after I was born, on July 9th, 1958, the plates that make up the Fairweather Range in the Alaskan panhandle apparently slipped twenty-one feet on either side of the Fairweather fault, the northern end of a major league instability that runs the length of North America."
-Jim Shepard, "Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay"

The fiction of Jim Shepard is magical in every sense of the word. Often, Shepard takes historical contexts for his fiction, such as the Hindenburg disaster or the French Revolution (from, of all things, the executioner's viewpoint), and dramatically telescopes these historical events through his use of heightened language, the captivating thoughts and actions of eccentric characters, and considerable empathetic skills (what Rick Bass called Shepard's "elephantine heart), so that in the end the stories feel as though they are somehow more than stories. They are historical arias, perhaps, historical illusions. The characters and the historical moment reverberate against one another in a cacophony of emotion and language. In an interview on identity theory with Robert Birnbaum, Shepard commented about why some of the stuff in his historical fabulations is, well, made up:"If you are writing a novel about the Russian Revolution and you are determined to read everything there is to read about it, you are never going write it. You are just never going to write it. And it's just a great way to shut yourself down. It’s also a great way to forget that you are not regurgitating what everyone has said about the Russian Revolution. You are creating a plausible illusion based on—really on your emotions and your particular peculiar obsessions." This is what makes Shepard's stories--whether they are fictionalizing history or the present--so captivating: he is continually fascinated. Not interested, but fascinated, which may just be the distinction between mediocre and exceptional art.

In the most recent issue of Ploughshares, that landmark journal located at Emerson College [Special note: Ploughshares editor Don Lee has recently left the journal, heading north to Minnesota where he will teach and write. Lee's influence during his 21 years working at Ploughshares has been exceptional, to say the least. He will certainly be missed there, by the reading audience, and certainly by Luna Park.], Shepard has in his story "Pleasure Boating in Lityua Bay" once again glowingly rendered his fascinations--this time using the vehicle of a character born just before the great destructive 1958 Lituya Bay tsunami that sent 1,720 feet high waves crashing into the bay, which the story's narrator calls, "the largest wave ever recorded by human beings." Later on in the story we are given this flooring description of the tsunami's actual destruction: "Ninety million tons of rock dropped into the Gilbert Inlet as a unit. The sonic concussion of the rock hitting the water knocked them both onto their backs on the deck. It took the wave about two and a half minutes to cover the seven miles to their boat....Four-foot-wide trees were washed away, along with the topsoil and everything else. Slopes were washed down to bedrock. Bigger trunks were snapped off at ground level. Trees at the edge of the trimline had their bark removed by the water pressure."

But it's not a story about the tsunami. Or, it is and it isn't. "Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay" is, like many Shepard stories, more about the character than the event itself, even though the beautifully and powerfully depicted events leave indelible imprints on our imaginations, as they always seem just a touch more than lifelike. The story is really three stories: 1. what happened to the narrator as a young boy, 2. the 1958 tsunami, and 3. the narrator as an adult not wanting to have a second baby with his wife. What the story is about is not disasters themselves, but what disasters do to people, how they can make people look at the world as a starker, dimmer place, how they can make people shut down. The nameless narrator born just before the tsunami disaster, lost his mother to a different disaster: she put him up for adoption after seeing a friend of hers die in a freak tidal wave and almost dying herself along the way, clinging to her son as the wave destroys a cabin they are in and carries them out to sea.

Everything in the story is wonderfully and tenderly rendered by Shepard--from the tsunami destruction to the landscape around Ketchikan to the touchingly painful anti-discussions between the narrator and his loving wife (they are anti-discussions as they are one-sided, the wife lovingly trying to break through to her husband, and the husband not being able to say what he knows she wants to hear, his own voice, loving her). And what breaks our heart is the narrator, this man, who cannot seem to come to terms with how his mother dealt with the disaster, by focusing on herself instead of him, abandoning him in order to deal with her own pain. Due to this, the narrator is set at a distance from the world--his wife, his son--worried every second that he will be abandoned (though he doesn't too consciously realize this). The most shocking example of this is his decision to get a vasectomy without even discussing it with his wife, nor telling her when he has the opportunity. Midway through the story, the narrator accidentally wonders aloud to his seven-year-old son, "What's this thing about putting people to use? What's that all about?" He can never get past his own defense measures, even now that he has his own family; he is constantly worried about his worth. At one point in the story he walks around his house feeling "like a demolition expert who's already wired the entire thing to blow and keeps rechecking the charges and connections."

In a Philosophy of Life course the narrator was in as a young man ("I got a C. If I took it now, I'd do even worse"), the teacher would, at the end of class, ask a series of questions that none of the students were able to answer. These questions are the questions of the story. They act upon the story like the same shifting tectonic plates that devastated Lituya Bay: "What makes us threaten the things we want most? What makes us so devoted to the comfort of the inadvertent? What makes us so unwilling to gamble on the non-cataclysmic?" Shepard is one of the most stunning and accomplished fiction writers today, and by the end of "Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay" he once again makes his fascinations, his questions, our own.

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