Monday, January 5, 2009

Like You'd Understand, Anyway - by Jim Shepard

Reminded me that the verb “to be” and all of its iterations is entirely pleasant, wholly useful, and utterly welcome in prose. In a more macro sense, the grammatical structure of the sentences of this book puts an emphasis on clarity, and thus you see an overabundance of subject-verb construction; long, sinuous trains of clauses are rare. Why is this? I think it’s because these stories are so data-heavy that they require a grammar that gets out of the way. Shephard lists at least 50 non-fiction books in his Acknowledgements, but it seems like more in the stories. Here are the settings of the stories, in the order they appear: Chernobyl disaster, Connecticut semi-present day, Roman occupied Briton circa 400 C.E., South Texas present-day, Tibet in the 30’s, Alaska 1958, Australia 1848, Greco-Persian wars, Russian space program 1963, Summer camp in New England circa 1960’s, and Paris during the French Revolution. And all of them contain the kind of micro-detail we associate with literary fiction, like this from “Hadrien’s Wall”, describing a clerk working on a cold day: “The peat fire barely warms itself. The other clerk and I continually blow on our hands, and the papyrus cracks from the chill if one presses too hard.” Of course, there’s nothing spectacular about these two sentences, except that no one who hadn’t read several books about life on Hadrien’s Wall in 400 C.E. could have written them. Who even knew there were clerks working at Hadrien’s Wall? The stories never feel didactic though, as every narrator (there’s a protagonist in every one speaking in the first-person) has some compulsion for detail, as well as his or her share of familial issues. Most of the blurbs for the book mention this in one way or another (when they’re not spouting effusive praise that is as general and bland as the book itself is specific and exciting): “These wildly diverse stories share a fascination with the inevitable cost of famlilial obligation and the inescabale fallout from disaster, both natural and man-made” – Los Angeles Times Book Review. Well, yes, but the “cost” of familial obligation is only explored in one story, the final one, titled “Sans Farine” and concerning the fortunes of an executioner during the French Revolution (more on that in a second); the rest explore different aspects of familial relationships. There is a preoccuption with disaster, but here’s what’s interesting about it: it’s not tied to the familial conflict, even metophorically. I remember seeing “Lost in Space” (with Heather Graham, William Hurt, and that guy who played Joey in Friends) in a theater in Mexico and thinking that the disasters that befall the family in space are all nothing more than extended metaphors for their own internal conflict. Shepard’s disasters aren’t like that. They happen concurrently with family conflict sometimes but don’t reveal anything about them meaning-wise, and the protagonists deal with them in addition to (but usually separately from) whatever brother-father-wife problems they’re having. The only relation is that both are happening to the protagonist; otherwise, there’s no relation. And that treatment strikes me as exceedingly realistic, and therefore valuable in the sense of literature enacting common human difficulties and producing a sense of pathos in the reader. Is that old-fashioned?
One more note (and this entry is already much longer than I planned) on the final story “Sans Farine”. Is it the BEST story in the collection? Not sure that I could choose, but I’m mentioning it because besides being a great depiction of a marriage falling apart, it seemed to have a lot to say about the American Empire during the Bush years. Other stories did too, as they often entered the inner lives of characters in positions of power (Nazi’s, soldiers in the employ of the Roman Empire, Australian adventurers), but the main character of “Sans Farine,” as an unenthusiastic executioner during the fall of a monarchy, the Reign of Terror and the rise of the Republic, has more to say than others. “It was a busy time for the executioner,” the narrator says, almost echoing that Kung-Fu intro to GZA’s “Liquid Swords.” And then this, which sounds like it could have come from the head of any thoughtful American citizen circa 2005: “We both remembered a time…when I’d been of a sudden possessed by an ungovernable rage with all of those in power who had brought our nation to her present catastrophe, and had resolved to leave Paris…But my passion had subsided, and I’d understood just a bit of what such a decision would involve. Was everyone to abandon his post every time the country took a turn for the worse? Was it left to each servant of the state to decide which laws he would carry out, and which he would not? Did anyone but the highest ministers have sufficient information on which to base their opinions?”
Here are a few more that seemed drenched in their contemporary atmosphere:
“…he fell victim to that belief of monarchs that expenditure should not be governed by revenue, but revenue instead by expenditure.”
“That nation was in peril, and what constitutional safeguards remained had to make way for emergency measures.”
“The Law of Suspects was a reminder to the populace that a nation at war might have to exterminate liberty in order to save it.”
“Histrionic patriotism was the only requisite for public speaking”
“I envision new laws abolishing the accused’s right to any defense; the frightened seeking to outpace one another with the zeal and homicidal efficiency of their patiotism; and prisoners condemned in groups, identities muddled in the confusion, as sons die in the names of fathers, alongside entire families decimated by misspellings and clerical errors.” (That last part very reminiscent of the mistakes I’ve read about on the terrorist watch list.)
Am I reading too much into it? Perhaps.

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