The World to Come by Jim Shepard

The World to Come: Stories by Jim Shepard. February 21, 2017. Knopf, 256p. ISBN: 9781524731809.  Int Lvl: AD; Rdg Lvl: AD.

“Without a doubt the most ambitious story writer in America,” according to The Daily Beast, Jim Shepard now delivers a new collection that spans borders and centuries with unrivaled mastery.

These ten stories ring with voices belonging to–among others–English Arctic explorers in one of history’s most nightmarish expeditions, a young contemporary American negotiating the shockingly underreported hazards of our crude-oil trains, eighteenth-century French balloonists inventing manned flight, and two mid-nineteenth-century housewives trying to forge a connection despite their isolation on the frontier of settlement. In each case the personal is the political as these characters face everything from the emotional pitfalls of everyday life to historic catastrophes on a global scale. In his fifth collection, Shepard makes each of these wildly various worlds his own, and never before has he delineated anything like them so powerfully.

Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong language; Strong sexual themes; Alcohol

 

Reviews

Booklist starred (January 1, 2017 (Vol. 113, No. 9))
Shepard, a fiction writer with a remarkably intimate approach to historical subjects, returns to the short story following his novel, The Book of Aron (2015), winner of the PEN New England Award and the Sophie Brody Medal for Excellence in Jewish Literature, and a Carnegie Medal finalist. In this collection of 10 exceptionally powerful tales of courageous responsibility and criminal indifference set in the past and present, Shepard creates various states of emergency either diligently recorded in journals or conveyed in high-velocity, dialogue-driven dramas. With wit and compassion, he fictionalizes the doomed Arctic Franklin Expedition and the 1961 destruction by a violent storm of a precariously erected, manned radar tower off the East Coast. He tells the stories of imperiled crew members on a WWII submarine and two men on an overloaded, under-inspected oil train heading for disaster. Shepard’s fascination with technology also fuels a sweetly droll tale about the eighteenth-century French Montgolfier brothers and their hot-air balloons. In the heartbreaking title story, Shepard choreographs a slow domestic disaster in 1850s New England, where two lonely farm women discover a dangerous passion. Throughout this masterful, profoundly involving collection, Shepard elucidates with stirring precision the emotions of characters ambushed by terrifying powers beyond their control, whether a blizzard or an earthquake, the death of a child, or forbidden love.

Kirkus Reviews starred (December 15, 2016)
Shepard’s fifth story collection—his first book since his well-received novel, The Book of Aron (2015), which was a Kirkus Prize finalist—demonstrates why he’s a writer who defies categorization. An extended bibliography shows just how meticulous Shepard’s research is, as usual. There’s nothing confessional in his work, no possibility of confusing the author with his protagonists, who include a frontier housewife in a loveless marriage (the title story), a French balloonist in the 18th century who is as impractical as he is imaginative (“The Ocean of Air”), and a British submariner in World War II “immersed in a haze of inertia” (“Telemachus”). Some of his stories take the form of diaries, and he writes in the language and cadence of the period, suggesting an occasional stylistic affinity with Conrad and Melville. Yet these aren’t historical fictions or period pieces but meditations on the past as prologue, on seeing the world to come (as the title has it) in the world that has been. This world is one in which impersonal bureaucracy trumps individual initiative at every turn, whether Shepard is writing about the seemingly predestined collapse of an Air Force information tower (“Safety Tips for Living Alone”), illuminating “the state of most of our railway infrastructure, which on a good day can look like the shittiest Third World footings and tracks on a bad day” (“Positive Train Control,” which has pages that read like investigative journalism), or a doomed 19th-century seafaring exploration (“HMS Terror”). In addition to institutional forces, fate and nature make humanity seem very small in these stories; so many of their protagonists are somehow feckless and hapless as they try to find some semblance of a lifeline in the most tenuous connections, in what the final story terms, with a tinge of irony, “the silver lining of their intimacy.” A stylist whose fictional expansiveness underscores his singularity.

About the Author

Jim Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, including the forthcoming You Think That’s Bad. His third collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. Project X won the 2005 Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, as well as the ALEX Award from the American Library Association. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, DoubleTake, the New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Playboy, and he was a columnist on film for the magazine The Believer. Four of his stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories and one for a Pushcart Prize. He’s won an Artists’ Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Williams College and lives in Williamstown with his wife Karen, his three children, and two beagles.

His website is jimshepard.wordpress.com.

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