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Jim Shepard (Michael Lionstar)
Jim Shepard (Michael Lionstar)

The Daily Review, Mon., May 2

Disturbing beauty in a short-story collection Add to ...

In You Think That's Bad, Jim Shepard has given us precisely the kind of book we have come to expect from him: a collection of exquisitely crafted, piercingly intelligent, heart-stoppingly beautiful short stories.

The author of six novels and three previous collections of short fiction, Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Conn., and now lives in Massachusetts, where he's a professor at Williams College. Though still perhaps relatively unknown in Canada, Shepard is much lauded in the United States, where his previous collection of short fiction, Like You'd Understand Anyway, was short-listed for the 2007 National Book Award, and where he's widely regarded as one of the coolest, most unconventional writers working today.

As far as collections of short fiction go, You Think That's Bad is incredibly wide-ranging, almost willfully peripatetic in terms of the variety of narrators and situations it juxtaposes and thematic material broached in it. We begin, for instance, with a 21st-century "black world" operative, whose marriage is in trouble because he can't tell his wife about his top-secret job. Then, in the next story, we swing into the world of a 1930s aristocratic woman attempting to "locate the ruins of the mountain citadel of the Assassins," an ancient Shia sect. The next story plunges us into the near future, where an engineer in the Netherlands finds himself working frantically to keep the rising sea waters at bay.

If there is a distinguishing trait linking these very different stories, it is perhaps the depth and meticulousness of the research that goes into them. Short stories, like the books in which they find themselves collected, almost never announce their erudition the way the ones in this book do; the work concludes with two and a half pages of acknowledgments, citing more than 100 texts that have served as source material.

The distinctiveness of each story, and indeed, the unity of the collection itself stems from the rigour of this preparatory work: Each piece emanates from and is enveloped by a particular, highly specialized vocabulary that is both sensuous and precise. For instance, in Minotaur, the "black world" operative explains to the reader how to discern the existence of the shadowy world he inhabits:

"If you want to know how big the black world is, go click, on COMPTROLLER and then RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT on the DOD's Web site and make a list of the line items with names like Cerulean Blue and budgets listed as 'No Number.' Then compare the number of budget items you can add up, then subtract that from the DOD's printed budget. Now there's an eye-opener for you home actuaries: You're looking at a difference of forty billion dollars.

With its range of voices and vocabularies, You Think That's Bad stages its own refusal to cohere into anything resembling a single whole, and provides brief glimpses of a necessary fragmentary world and a history that is insistently global. This is a new reality, the collection seems to be saying, this is what it's like now.

In one of the most striking stories, Your Fate Hurtles Down at You, a young Alpine researcher describes the particular type of snow that's become his object of study. "A particular kind of degraded crystal that because of its shape constituted a non-cohesive mass in the snow cover," he tells us, "such crystals were excessively fragile and ran like loose pebbles." These stories are perhaps best seen in a similar way: Fragile and separate, they share a common genesis but are not identical, each possessing its own weirdly fragile, not altogether undisturbing, beauty.

Steven Hayward's most recent novel, Don't Be Afraid, was published in January.

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