In Jim Shepard’s tales of manmade disasters and natural catastrophes, he repeatedly trains his eye on the precariousness of human existence. In his 2015 novel “The Book of Aron,” for instance, the teenage narrator trapped with his family in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto during World War II sums up the situation frankly: “[W]hat seemed secure one day was a soap bubble the next.”
That observation could apply to a number of Shepard protagonists.
Yet there’s often something deadpan or perverse in Shepard’s approach to his material that prevents his fiction from being a total downer. His foible-filled characters, many of whom would be social misfits even in the best of worlds, react to their dire circumstances in bizarrely wayward fashion, sometimes acclimatizing themselves to their wrecked worlds in a manner as bracing as it is unnerving. They leave you asking, “Can human beings really react like that?”
The best stories in his new collection, “The World to Come,” bring a slight shift in tone to his work. There’s less sense than usual of looking at small, crushable specimens under a magnifying lens, and more heart and feeling racketing around in his characters. Like Alice Munro, he has a knack for compressing a novel’s worth of life into 30 or 40 pages. If there’s a distance in these new tales, it’s the distance of long perspective.
The title story is a prime example. Taking the form of diary entries penned by a 19th-century farmer’s wife in upstate New York, it portrays a state of isolation that’s relieved only by the diarist’s increasingly intoxicating friendship with her neighbor Tallie, a farmer’s wife like herself. When their increasingly passionate bond is disrupted, it’s as though a life-sustaining alternative existence has been ripped away from a woman who has already suffered too much loss.
“HMS Terror,” which also takes diary form, is narrated by Lieutenant Edward Little, part of the doomed Franklin expedition looking for the Northwest Passage in the high Arctic. His account of the slow, brutal attrition of the mission balances waning hopes with horrific desperation.
Shepard, who teaches at Williams College, is a meticulous researcher, but he does make one odd gaffe here, talking of “palpable polar darkness” in early July when the sun shines almost all day above the Arctic Circle. Elsewhere, his historical detail (a four-page bibliography accompanies the book) is thoroughly convincing.
“Safety Tips for Living Alone” concerns the 1961 sinking of a “Texas Tower,” a Cold War military monitoring station miles off the Atlantic coast. Its events are action-movie compelling, but what’s unusual about them is the way they’re seen through vivid capsule summaries of the marriages of the men about to die. Domestic quirks and connubial details strangely hold their own against impending obliteration. As in “The Book of Aron,” Shepard is alert to the way that situations deteriorate: “[C]onfidence was like an air bubble that shrank a little every time something went wrong.”
“Intimacy,” set on Australia’s Queensland coast on the eve of a cataclysmic cyclone, likewise traces the seemingly arbitrary fates that place its diverse characters in the path of devastating floods. Shepard’s eye is on human fussiness as well as human resilience: “[Y]oung women clad in the scantiest of clothing . . . had to be lifted dripping wet into the boat to be ferried to safety. One, having been settled aboard, complained that her seat was wet.”
There’s comedy in this — and a nonchalant stoicism too.
One story, “The Ocean of Air,” stands out from the rest in tone. It’s about the Montgolfier brothers’ invention of the hot-air balloon. The tale — with its droll contrast between visionary Joseph-Michel, the narrator, and pragmatic Jacques-Étienne — is a pure, preposterous delight. And yet it does have a connecting thread to its companions in the book.
Joseph-Michel, like almost all Shepard’s narrators, has a screw loose when it comes to dealing with the world around him: “My father has said I am so absentminded that upon retiring I once tucked the cat into bed and put myself out the door.” But he has loving family looking out for him.
Others aren’t so lucky.
“I felt I had made an honest attempt at being like other young men,” Edward Little says in “HMS Terror,” “and the result left me morose and impatient and impossible to admire.”
It all adds up to a peculiar yet arresting vision, as Shepard lets you see a startling variety of dangers and condundrums through the eyes of characters who, poignantly or even despairingly, can’t quite summon the humanity that’s hidden away in them.
THE WORLD TO COME
By Jim Shepard
Knopf, 258 pp., $25.95Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.