Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Like You'd Understand, Anyway, and The Sign of Four

Thoughts on some recent reading:

Like You'd Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard

What I hoped for from Jim Shepard's new National Book Award-nominated collection, fairly or not, was abundant variety. That's what my ideal short story collection would offer, and that's what his champions promise. And to a great extent that's what he delivers. Shepard has a truly impressive knack for wide-ranging and far-flung settings, with stories about: Chernobyl at the time of the accident, England at the time of Hadrian's Wall, ancient Marathon during the Persian invasion, a dangerous Alaskan fjord, a nightmare summer camp experience, the first female cosmonaut, an early explorer of the Australian desert and a similar story about Nazis exploring Tibet, a Texas high school football season, and Paris during the time of the Revolutionary Terror. Through research (check out the crazy ackowledgements) and a powerfully nuanced imagination, Shepard makes all of these subjects come alive. His prose style is commanding, his psychological gifts are considerable, and every now and then he'll drop in a line that's stunningly funny or memorable. In "The First South Central Australian Expedition," the narrator recalls the tough Victorian eduaction he and his brothers had: "He remembered with fierce indignation a headmaster's remark that God had created boys' buttocks in order to facilitate the learning of Latin." And there's this paragraph from a story about a troubled man who's planning to do something terrible that could completely undermine his marriage: "We honeymooned in San Francisco. Here's what that was like for me: I still root for that city's teams." We're talking about a top-tier practioner of the form.

So what's my gripe? For all the variety of the settings, too many of the stories feel very much the same, using almost what you could call a formula: a troubled man, feeling abandoned by his parents or often with a brother rivalry (in a glowing review, Daniel Handler quipped, "the book is dedicated to Shepard’s brother, which feels a bit like 'Hamlet' being dedicated to Uncle Claudius") approaches a "last chance to make it right" kind of crisis point and fails to take the action that would avert disaster. It's a powerful story that rouses emotions, but with so many variations on it back to back, I felt the collection ironically lacked in variety. Another reader might find it a perfect unifying theme.

Picking highlights is a challenge because for the most part Shepard is so consistent. Exceptions first. The single story with a female protagonist ("Eros 7," about a real Russian cosmonaut) was cringeworthy from even a moderately feminist point of view, and the two explorer stories (the too-obvious Nazi-bashing of "Ancestral Legacies" as well as the much stronger Australian Expedition piece) couldn't hold a candle to superior works by Andrea Barrett ("Servants of the Map") and Daniel Kehlmann ("Measuring the World"), both of whom beat Shepard to the revisionist narrative of explorers who suffer and cause suffering through their naive sense of Western superiority. For me the standouts were the ones with the freshest historical settings: "Hadrian's Wall," "My Aeschylus," and "Sans Farine" (included in 2007's Best American Short Stories). I also loved the football story, "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak," because I'd never quite read anything like it before.

Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

They say the Holmes novels aren't quite as good as the Holmes stories, which is true for me so far, but they're still great fun. There are some classic Holmes/Watson moments--the first chapter hits all the right notes of the formula, from Holmes's demonstration of his powers of deduction to his disapproval of Watson's published version of their adventures. Then there's Sherlock's first injection of his 7% solution to alleviate the tedium he suffers in between cases, and I esp. enjoyed Holmes's reaction to Watson's falling in love with a typically wholesome Victorian type, prone to fainting, etc.

The story breezed along for me until the last chapter, when the nabbed criminal has to tell his long, wheezy side of the story, including the history of the treasure. The standard bumps of early mystery or science fiction storytelling of the 19C. (There's also an unconscious bit of nasty period racism, so let the Bowdlers of the world be warned to stay away.) I'm psyched for Hound of the Baskervilles.

Note: this edition, which I found at the library, had an enjoyable introduction from Graham Greene who confesses it was the Holmes adventure that stayed with him longest.

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