Skip to main content

The World to Come: Stories


The World to Come: Stories

THE WORLD TO COME is the third of Jim Shepard's story collections I've had the pleasure of reviewing, and its 10 strikingly original stories reveal that his work is as impressive as ever. Writing about his collection, LIKE YOU'D UNDERSTAND, ANYWAY, I noted his "mastery of the form and gift for synthesizing arcane research in a way that doesn’t detract from his storytelling talents." Of YOU THINK THAT'S BAD, I observed that he "excels at placing his characters in extreme confrontations with the natural world, often mirroring turmoil in their personal lives." His latest book displays all those qualities in abundance, as his stories span several centuries and traverse the world from the Arctic Circle to the depths of the Indian Ocean.

The quintessential Shepard short story occurs in what the narrator of "Telemachus," a gunner's mate on a British T-class submarine in 1942, calls the "adventurous world of men, the arena of tropic seas and volcanic cataclysms and cannibal feasts and polar exploits." That description accounts for fully half the stories in this collection, ones in which Shepard blends deep immersion in a subject --- whether it's the destruction wreaked by a devastating cyclone off the eastern coast of Australia in the late 19th century ("Intimacy") or the collapse of a radar tower in the North Atlantic ("Safety Tips for Living Alone") --- with vivid prose and, above all, a deep feeling for his characters' humanity. The result, in all cases, is a story that in 30-40 pages has the scope and depth of a novel.

"Each of these superb stories leaves one with the sense of embarking on a great journey in the presence of an unfailingly wise and thoughtful guide. In Jim Shepard's skilled hands, artfully crafted miniatures expand to reveal entire worlds."

Typical of Shepard's abundant talent is "HMS Terror," a saga of the catastrophic Franklin Expedition that sought a sea route to the Pacific through the Northwest Passage between 1845 and 1848, claiming the lives of all 133 of its participants in the process. Through the journal of Lieutenant Edward Little, which functions as a kind of literary black box, Shepard portrays in harrowing detail the slow but seemingly inevitable collapse of the expedition, as in the end the men are left to trek on foot across a frozen wasteland after they're forced to abandon their icebound ships. "Nothing moves and nothing changes," Little writes, in a narrative that brings to life each agonizing step. "All is forever frigid, cheerless, and still. When the wind dies the only noise is our desperate gasping as the going becomes too rough."

When Edward Little realizes that "our luck has collapsed, just as the Arabian Wizard's money turned to leaves," he reaches the same grim conclusion as the men aboard Texas Tower no. 4 in "Safety Tips for Living Alone." That story is based on the real-life obliteration of a structurally unsound radar tower that succumbed to winds of 130 knots and 120-foot waves in the North Atlantic in January 1961, claiming the lives of 28 workers awaiting evacuation. Like the doomed British sailors, they understood, too late, "the implacability that would no longer indulge their mistakes and would sweep from them all they had ever loved."

Evoking memories of the BP oil spill, the tragic tale is kin to "Positive Train Control," describing a shipment of explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to Philadelphia through the eyes of its youthful conductor. Shepard's well-researched indictment, in this fictional form, of the deplorable state of our railway infrastructure, which, in the words of the conductor on the fateful trip, "on a good day can look like the shittiest Third World footings and tracks on a bad day," is the stuff of nightmares.

But Shepard's stories pitting humans against nature aren't all tales of hubris and technological disaster. "The Ocean of Air" is the elegant account of the Montgolfier brothers' invention of the first hot air balloon. In it, Joseph Michel's joy at observing from high above the French countryside in 1783 that "the sun seems to have risen for me and me alone, gilding the basket and fabric above with its light" is tempered by his poignant realization that "the fruit of my machine is beautiful to imagine but not available for us to sample. This is a tree planted for our children."

Shepard reveals he's capable of painting on the smaller canvas that's more familiar to readers of contemporary short fiction. The narrator of "Wall-to-Wall Counseling" works in public relations for a health insurer whose "Two-Step Program: ‘Confuse your customers and dump the sick,’” leaves it with "fewer happy customers than the average mortgage company." Now she must deal with the firestorm that erupts when her employer's decision to deny a liver transplant to a dying girl (a former contestant on “America's Got Talent”) has become raw meat for the insatiable round-the-clock news cycle. The title story is another more intimate one, focusing on the friendship of two farmers' wives in the upstate New York of the 1850s, and bringing to mind the fiction of Alice Munro.

Each of these superb stories leaves one with the sense of embarking on a great journey in the presence of an unfailingly wise and thoughtful guide. In Jim Shepard's skilled hands, artfully crafted miniatures expand to reveal entire worlds.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on February 24, 2017

The World to Come: Stories
by Jim Shepard

  • Publication Date: January 16, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0525432310
  • ISBN-13: 9780525432319