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  • Written by Jim Shepard
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  • Like You'd Understand, Anyway
  • Written by Jim Shepard
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Written by Jim ShepardAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jim Shepard

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On Sale: November 19, 2008
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48752-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Excerpt

Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay

Two and a half weeks after I was born, on July 9th, 1958, the plates that make up the Fairweather Range in the Alaskan panhandle apparently slipped twenty-one feet on either side of the Fairweather fault, the northern end of a major league instability that runs the length of North America. The thinking now is that the southwest side and bottom of the inlets at the head of Lituya Bay jolted upward and to the northwest, and the northeast shore and head of the bay jolted downward and to the southeast. One way or the other, the result registered 8.3 on the Richter scale.

The bay is T-shaped and seven miles long and two wide at the stem, and according to those who were there it went from a glassy smoothness to a full churn, a giant’s Jacuzzi. Next to it, mountains twelve to fifteen thousand feet high twisted into themselves and lurched in contrary directions. In Juneau, 122 miles to the southeast, people who’d turned in early were pitched from their beds. The shock waves wiped out bottom-dwelling marine life throughout the panhandle. In Seattle, a thousand miles away, the University of Washington’s seismograph needle was jarred completely off its graph. And meanwhile, back at the head of the bay, a spur of mountain and glacier the size of a half-mile-wide city park–forty million cubic yards in volume–broke off and dropped three thousand feet down the northeast cliff into the water.

This is all by way of saying that it was one of the greatest spasms, when it came to the release of destructive energy, in history. It happened around 10:16 p.m. At that latitude and time of year, still light out. There were three small boats anchored in the south end of the bay.

The rumbling from the earthquake generated vibrations that the occupants of the boats could feel on their skin like electric shock. The impact of the rockfall that followed made a sound like Canada exploding. There were two women, three men, and a seven-year-old boy in the three boats. They looked up to see a wave breaking over the seventeen-hundred-foot-high southwest bank of Gilbert Inlet and heading for the opposite slope. What they were looking at was the largest wave ever recorded by human beings. It scythed off three-hundred-year-old pines and cedars and spruce, some of them with trunks three or four feet thick, along a trimline of 1,720 feet. That’s a wave crest 500 feet higher than the Empire State Building.

Fill your bathtub. Hold a football at shoulder height and drop it into the water. Imagine the height of the tub above the waterline to be two thousand feet. Scale the height of the initial splash up proportionately.



When I was two years old, my mother decided she’d had enough of my father and hunted down an old high school girlfriend who’d wandered so far west she’d taken a job teaching in a grammar school in Hawaii. The school was in a little town called Pepeekeo. All of this was told to me later by my mother’s older sister. My mother and I moved in with the friend, who lived in a little beach cottage on the north shore of the island near an old mill, Pepeekeo Mill. We were about twelve miles north of Hilo. This was in 1960.

The friend’s name was Chuck. Her real name was Charlotte something, but everyone apparently called her Chuck. My aunt had a photo she showed me of me playing in the sand with some breakers in the background. I’m wearing something that looks like overalls put on backward. Chuck’s drinking beer from a can.

And one morning Chuck woke my mother and me up and asked if we wanted to see a tidal wave. I don’t remember any of this. I was in pajamas and my mother put a robe on me and we trotted down the beach and looked around the point to the north. I told my mother I was scared and she said we’d go back to the house if the water got too high. We saw the ocean suck itself out to sea smoothly and quietly, and the muck of the sand and some flipping and turning white-bellied fish that had been left behind. Then we saw it come back, without any surf or real noise, like the tide coming in in time-lapse photography. It came past the hightide mark and just up to our toes. Then it receded again. “Some wave,” my mother told me. She lifted me up so I could see the end of it. Some older boys who lived on Mamalahoa Highway sprinted past us, chasing the water. They got way out, the mud spraying up behind their heels. And the water came back again, this time even smaller. The boys, as far out as they were, were still only up to their waists. We could hear how happy they sounded. Chuck told us the show was over, and we headed up the beach to the house. My mother wanted me to walk, but I wanted her to carry me. We heard a noise and when we turned we saw the third wave. It was already the size of the lighthouse out at Wailea. They’d gotten me into the cottage and halfway up the stairs to the second floor when the walls blew in. My mother managed to slide me onto a corner of the roof that was spinning half a foot above the water. Chuck went under and didn’t come up again. My mother was carried out to sea, still hanging on to me and the roof chunk. She’d broken her hip and bitten through her lower lip. We were picked up later that day by a little boat near Honohina.

She was never the same after that, my aunt told me. This was maybe by way of explaining why I’d been put up for adoption a few months later. My mother had gone to teach somewhere in Alaska. Somewhere away from the coast, my aunt added with a smile. She pretended she didn’t know exactly where. I’d been left with the Franciscan Sisters at the Catholic orphanage in Kahili. On the day of my graduation, one of the sisters who’d taken an interest in me grabbed both of my shoulders and shook me and said, “What is it you want? What’s the matter with you?” They weren’t bad questions, as far as I was concerned.

I saw my aunt that once, the year before college. My fiancée, many years later, asked if we were going to invite her to the wedding, and then later that night said, “I guess you’re not going to answer, huh?”



Sans Farine

My father, Jean-Baptiste Sanson, had christened in the church of Saint-Laurent two children: a daughter, who married Pierre Hérisson, executioner of Melun, and a son, myself. After my mother’s death he remarried, his second wife from a family of executioners in the province of Touraine. Together they produced twelve children, eight of whom survived, six of whom were boys. All six eventually registered in the public rolls as executioners, my half brothers beginning their careers by assisting their father and then myself in the city of Paris.

My name is Charles-Henri Sanson, known to many throughout this city as the Keystone of the Revolution, and known to the rabble as Sans Farine, in reference to my use of emptied bran sacks to hold the severed heads. I was named for Charles Sanson, former adventurer and soldier of the King and until 1668 executioner of Cherbourg and Caudebec-en-Caux. My father claimed he was descended from Sanson de Longval and that our family coat of arms derived from either the First or Second Crusade. Its escutcheon represents another play on our name: a cracked bell and the motto San son: without sound.

You want to know–all France wants to know–what takes place in the executioner’s mind: the figure who before the Revolution wielded the double-bladed axe and double-handed sword and who branded, burned, and broke on the wheel all who came before him. The figure who now slides heads through what they call the Republican Window on the guillotine. Does he eat? Does he sleep? Do his smiles freeze the blood? Is he kind to those he kills? Does he touch his wife on days he works? Does he reach for you with blood-rimmed fingernails? Did he spring full-blown from a black pit to send batch after batch through the guillotine?

Becoming shrill, my wife calls it, whenever I get too agitated in my own defense.

“What struck people’s minds above all else,” Livy, the great Roman, wrote in his History on Brutus’s sacrifice of his own sons for the good of the Republic, “is that his function as consul imposed on the father the task of punishing his sons, and that his unbendingness compelled him personally to order the execution, the very sight of which was not spared him.” In Guérin’s rendering of the scene, the hero turns away but does not blanch. Standing before it in the old Royal Academy with Anne-Marie, I told her that perhaps this is the way we attain the sublime: by our fierce devotion to the required. She was not able to agree.

I am a good Catholic. The people’s judges hand out their sentences, and mine is the task of insuring that their words become incarnate. I am the instrument, and it is justice that strikes. I feel the same remorse as anyone required to be present at an execution.

Before the Revolution, justice was apportioned and discharged in the name of the King, who ruled by divine right as one of God’s implements. Punishment of malefactors was God’s will and therefore earned for his sovereign minister God’s grace and esteem. But in the eyes of most, that grace and esteem did not extend as far as the sovereign’s handservant. Before the Revolution, daughters of executioners were forbidden to marry outside the profession. When their girls came of age, such families had to display on their doors a yellow affidavit clarifying the family’s trade, and acknowledging the taint in their bloodline. Letters of commission and payments were not passed into their hands but dropped before them. They were required to live at the southern ends of towns, and their houses had to be painted red.

Before the Revolution, a woman with whom I dined at an inn demanded I be made to appear in court to apologize for having shared with her a dinner table. She petitioned that executioners be directed to wear a particular badge or color upon their coats or singlets so that all would know their profession. Before the Revolution, our children were allowed no playmates but one another.



For lunch today there was egg soup with lemon juice and broth, cock’s comb, a marrowbone, chicken fried in bread crumbs, jelly, apricots, bread, and fennel comfits. Clearing the table, Anne-Marie reminisced about a holiday we took when the children were small. When she speaks to me, she holds the family before us like a pleasing little stove. At first she was able to treat this terrible time as a brigand unable to trespass upon the better world she bore within.

With children, everything and nothing registers. My earliest memory is of the house outside Paris, and the height of the manure pile, and the muck dropped by the household geese. I remember flies whenever one went outside. I remember my mother’s calm voice and associate it with needlework. She was fond of saying that I had no ideas of grandeur and that she would wish that to continue. My grandmother always chided me for losing even a crumb of my bread, since, as she put it, I couldn’t make for myself even that. My father was a quiet man who, when it came to my understanding the world, resolved that his little boy should become a person capable of self-sufficiency, so he allowed me to negotiate my own passage through that household. I was perceived to be headstrong but inhibited. I was sent away at an early age and then pitched from school to school, since the moment my classmates uncovered my family’s profession, life became unbearable again. I wrote my mother a series of supplications outlining my misery and pleading for a response. In a cheerless chapel in a school in Rouen—my fourth in as many years—I received my father’s letter informing me of her death.

He remarried; the house was repopulated with half brothers and sisters; I stayed away at my schools. I matured into a beanstalk whose expressions excited pity on the street. My teachers knew me as dutiful, alert, frugal, and friendless: a nonentity with ambitions. I was often cold and known for my petitions to sit nearer the room’s hearth. I volunteered for small errands so that in solitude I might gather the strength to face the rest of the day. I wrote to myself in my notebooks that I felt my bleak present within me and ached to my bones with wondering if loneliness would always be the measure of my days.

Anne-Marie was a market gardener’s daughter in Montmartre, her father’s establishment a luncheon stop on my infrequent visits home from school. She was his eldest, born the same day as myself, and when we first conversed I imagined that we had loved each other from that date, unawares.

Her first act in my presence was to scratch at a rash on her foot until chided by her father entering the room with the roast. She visited the water closet, and back at the table returned my gaze as if examining a distant coastline. She was still chewing a bit of carrot. From that first meeting I have perched perpetually, in a kind of dreamy distress, on the very edge of relieving my longings. Her lovely large mouth and deep-set eyes with their veiled expression, and her child’s posture have been my harbor and receding horizon. Her seat, that first luncheon, was in the sun, and her skin was so fine I could see the circulation of her blood. When she blushed, I could feel the warmth.


From the Hardcover edition.
Jim Shepard|Author Q&A

About Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard - Like You'd Understand, Anyway

Photo © Barry Goldstein

Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and three previous collections of stories. He teaches at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Author Q&A

Q: How does one come to write a collection of stories?

A: Well, they acrue, over time. Here’s an account, as an example, of how I came to write one of the eleven collected:

My fascination with the French Revolution and, more specifically, with the Reign of Terror began with either my first viewing of MGM’s version of A Tale of Two Cities, or, more likely, with the Classics Illustrated version (#139, In the Reign of Terror, with a cover that featured a Clu Gulager-like aristocrat in the foreground glancing apprehensively over his shoulder at a sans-culotte menacing him with a club.) But it never occurred to me to write about that fascination, perhaps because I couldn’t imagine myself someday reading anything aloud that would force me to pronounce French. But one day while rambling through a particularly good used book store—Monroe Street Books, in Middlebury, Vermont, if you find yourself in the area—I came across the kind of title that always appeals to the twelve year-old in me: Legacy of Death. The author was Barbara Levy, and the subtitle turned out to be The Remarkable Saga of the Sanson Family, Who Served as Executioners of France for Seven Generations. Now there was a family I wanted to know more about. One of those generations turned out to feature the man who ended up at the center of my story, a man whose life and profession, as the book sketched them in, seemed so stunning to me that I found myself very much wanting to try to imagine it more fully, despite the obvious difficulties involved in doing so. Months of ghoulish research followed. (My wife Karen, herself a writer, likes to complain that I’m the only person she knows who’ll take a history of the guillotine along as beach reading.) The result was the story “Sans Farine.”
 
 
Q: Related to that, in the Acknowledgments you list over sixty books or articles that helped with this collection. Do you always read so much for your writing?

A: In a lot of cases my stories wouldn’t have come to be without some of those books and articles. I read a huge amount, initially just because something fascinates me, and as I’m reading, I’m trying to read receptively; that is, I’m trying to be alert to small but significant stirrings of affect, or some kind of quiet charge inside me: whatever it is in the material that might make it more than usually compelling, and affecting, to me. I don’t need, initially, to be able to articulate to myself fully what that is; I just need to have registered it on some level. Once I think I’ve identified something like that (and it hardly happens all the time; often I’ll do a huge amount of reading on one subject, and nothing will come of it, other than my own pleasure) my reading changes, and I start approaching the material as though researching a subject: i.e., with some notion of the sorts of gaps I’d need to fill in if I were going to attempt to recreate the illusion of a world like the one about which I’m reading. I certainly, in other words, end up writing stories because of things I’ve read. But those things are almost always moments in which human beings have found themselves in extraordinarily difficult, and memorable, positions that resonate with me, personally, in emotional terms. In other words, zeppelins themselves don’t get me going; it’s the position in which a zeppelin can place somebody that generates the initial impulse for a story.


Q: In this wonderful new collection, there are many stories, or themes within the stories, that deal with the relationship between brothers and/or the friendship and loyalty among men. Is this something you wanted to explore in particular and are there connections to your life, or your relationship to your brother?

A: There are. I think the brother relationship in general is intensely useful to me for the way it puts so much pressure on our sense of what it means to love someone unconditionally, and especially on the issues of connection and samaritanism. My brother and I (he’s five years older) have always been close, and separate, and that’s been a great source of emotional complexity and intensity in my psychic life. One of the great traumas in my family’s experience (and my family’s been mostly very lucky in that regard) was his institutionalization when he was about 16. It was an event that crystallized for me concrete forms for the kinds of issues—how much should one help? what constitutes help?—that always swirl around crucial family relationships.  


Q: Another of your themes seems to be about adventure or the folly of adventure, such as in “Hadrian’s Wall,” “The First South Central Australian Expedition,” and “Ancestral Legacies” (about Nazi’s in search of the mythic Yeti). Is it wanderlust or something else you’re interested in, when you embark on these journeys?

A: Not wanderlust so much as what’s for me the indivisible pairing of contrary emotions: I find that sort of striving impossibly admirable, and moving, and also impossibly stupid, and selfish. It produces in me the kind of complicated feeling that those who are moved by Tennyson’s poem about the Light Brigade might feel, I suppose.


Q: One of your stories deals with the brutality of boys playing varsity football in high school. Did you ever play and was it as frightening and painful as it comes across in “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak?”

A: I did play football, though nowhere near at that level. And the higher the level, the higher the level of ferocity. Anyone who’s been near the field during a Division I college football game, never mind a pro game, can tell you that.


Q: You have an amazing ability to get inside the heads of your characters/narrators, who are often anguished and unsure of themselves but smart and amusing observers of what’s around them, to the point where the reader feels great empathy with them, even while perhaps laughing at their misfortune. Is this type of struggling first-person narrator one you seek out for a reason?

A: Very much so, I think. I’m drawn to that situation in which we know better and still fail to live up to our best or preferred sense of ourselves. That sort of figure at which writers like Robert Stone excel: protagonists who are very, very smart, and still manage to fuck up in spectacular ways.


Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a fiction writer?  

A: In third or fourth grade, I found myself writing stories, almost exclusively about monsters: mostly variations on the Universal or silent film monsters, nearly all of which I’d seen on TV by that point. My family tended toward lax supervision. The nuns—I went to Catholic school until junior high—were happy to allow me to write, and write about anything, as long as I did it on my own time. So in English I’d finish diagramming sentences and go back to chapter 3 of whatever I was writing. I drew the covers, as well. I remember Sister Justine looking blankly at one entitled “All That Blood.” I never thought I would be a writer, necessarily. My secret plan was to write and then to hope that people gave me food.  My ambition had always been to be a veterinarian, until I realized that they had responsibilities beyond playing with puppies or giving old dogs treats.


Q: When did you first begin getting stories published? 

A:  I began publishing short stories as an undergraduate, with the Atlantic Monthly and Redbook. I was too clueless to be surprised by that success, or to understand how unusual it was. I then worked with John Hawkes when receiving my MFA from Brown University, and it was Jack who helped me understand just how much I was interested in using realism to torque the reader’s ordinary sense of the real.


Q: How central an influence has film been on your work? 

A: My characters often began or begin in the real world, and then find themselves in the midst of extremities: psychic, dreamlike, harrowing. The previously mentioned Jack Hawkes, among all of the other ways in which he helped me, also encouraged me to yoke together more firmly the high and low cultural antecedents for my projects. And like many of my generation, I’d grown up on movies. The formal model of popular film had had a fundamental effect on how I constructed narrative. (And still does, of course. There are all sorts of ways in which film has directly and indirectly showed itself in my fiction, besides Nosferatu, my fifth novel. I remember conceiving of the end of Paper Doll, my second—an ending which involved the massive and catastrophic 8th Air Force attack on Schweinfurt, Germany—in cinematic terms: what would you see at this point? Where would the camera be placed for this? There’s a way in which film pushes one towards both the viscerally visual and the kinetic. As opposed to, say, the intricately expositional, or ruminative. At other times—in a short story like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” for example—film has given me not only my governing metaphors, but also my protagonists.) Jack helped me to understand—and to make more conscious use of—those other antecedents for the kind of work I wanted to do: folk tales, myth, the projects of the surrealists, and, of course, that loose community of writers of which he was a part that became known, in the 60’s and 70’s, as the fabulists.


Q: What other sorts of subjects tend to come up when you’re interviewed?

A: The size of my readership. (It’s usually mentioned delicately, and even generously, through the employment of terms like ‘a writer’s writer.’) It may be that one of the factors that gets in the way of a bigger readership is an aspect of my work that countless reviewers have mentioned, occasionally with surprising peevishness: how different all of my fictions are, and how hard it is to decide exactly what kind of fiction I write. It may be that without that kind of categorization, it’s hard for buyers—whether they’re ordinary readers or judging panels—to know what they’re getting. I’m not the Catholic guy or the Po-Mo guy or the Historical Guy or the whatever guy. But there’s not much to be gained in speculating in that regard. Of course, I lament reaching fewer people than I would hope to reach. But I also remind myself how fortunate I am: because every so often the world provides me with sufficient time and opportunity, and lets me do the thing I want most to do.


Q: You teach (and are very popular doing so) writing and film at Williams College. Does teaching others about writing inspire or challenge you at all about your own writing?

A: Teaching is not just a way of getting flexible hours and good benefits, it turns out. Having to teach other works—especially works you’ve always loved—is a wonderful way of disciplining your mind. We always tell our students that we learn how to revise our own work by breaking down how others have constructed theirs. That holds for the teachers, too.


Q: And the question put to every writer, though you may be tired of this one, what are you working on next?  

A: I’ve always got a pile of odd books or clippings on my desk that I mean to get to. As one mystified librarian asked me, having checked through yet another pile of esoteric books in a discipline entirely different from my last one: “Can I ask you a question? What is it you do?” I should have answered her, “I play around. And every so often the world pays me for that.”


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Forged from the world with a sharp eye and a careful ear, serving no agenda but literature's primary and oft-forgotten one: the delight of the reader.” —The New York Times Book Review“Gutsy, brilliantly imagined, strongly made, fresh and propulsive.” —Chicago Tribune“With a near spooky sense of empathy and a wit that finds its mark like lightning, the stories in Jim Shepard's Like You'd Understand, Anyway transport readers light-years beyond what they think they know of the world.” —Vanity Fair“Exquisite, multifaceted tales.” —The New Yorker “A macro book with a micro eye. These wildly diverse stories share a fascination with the inevitable cost of familial obligation and the inescapable fallout from disaster, both natural and human-made.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review“Cannily crafted. . . . The stories couldn't be funnier-or deadlier-in this mad-smart, wildly inventive set.” —Elle “Jim Shepard is really a terrific writer. And it's not just the precision of the sentences. . . . It is the way he captures people throughout time with such an exact piercing, as though he's mapped out every corresponding nerve that can make us go weak at the knees.” —Providence Journal“An astounding set of stories . . . so dangerously brilliant, they're radioactive.” —O Magazine

Awards

WINNER 2007 The Story Prize
FINALIST 2007 National Book Awards

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