I Guess This Is Growing Up
Project X: A Novel (Knopf, 2004) and Love and Hydrogen (Vintage, 2004)
At least in the metaphorical sense, Jim Shepard does not look good on paper. Consider the synopses of some of his recent stories: a family history related through a series of the old “Mars Attacks” cards; an imagining of the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s last moments, as told by the swamp thing itself; a slice of life, from The Who’s glory days, as recounted by John Entwhistle. All of these seem like the lunging efforts of a flashy, horribly obnoxious creative writing student, bent on shocking his peers at the workshop table and drawing the eye of his foxy graduate assistant teacher.
Such showy tactics have attracted praise from the likes of Dave Eggers, who—though he has shown himself capable of strong writing and good taste—still falls prey to the lure of a good gimmick. I quote from Eggers’s blurb for the short story collection Love and Hydrogen, recently out in paperback, which appears on the back flap of the new novel Project X: “stories about dissolving marriages are fine, but about two gay engineers on the Hindenburg?” (italics in original).
Yet those who criticize (or outright avoid) Shepard because of such boardwalk exhibitionism miss the point, just as surely as those who praise him for it. Certainly, there should be no argument that Shepard falls far from the Updike/Cheever school of meditative realism in the literary horseshoe pit. But to lump his work in with the fluttery exhibitionism of the McSweeney’s school (remember Lemon?) would be a substantial mistake. Not only does Shepard imbue his tales with an arid, laconic style, he also populates them with distinct characters and seeds weighty, often interconnected themes throughout.
Some of Shepard’s stories do create a self-contained, finite universe, but many undeniably require a larger conceptual knowledge of Shepard’s preoccupations to fully cohere.
The title story, which has drawn Eggers’s special notice, firmly belongs to the latter sphere. “Love and Hydrogen” takes place in a common Shepardian milieu: a land overshadowed by mid-twentieth century global politics, in the midst of which characters blithely attempt to ignore the troubling machinations steadily engulfing their world.
The two gay engineers on the Hindenburg mirror the soccer-playing Slav in “Ajax is All About Attack” and the hapless Yanqui baseball players duffing it in the Cuban leagues in “Batting Against Castro.” A newcomer to the Shepardian oeuvre might find “Love and Hydrogen’s” conflation of Weimar decadence, burgeoning Nazism, a homosexual love affair and a terrible disaster odd, and far too open-ended. But the sports metaphors of “Ajax” and “Castro” help to put the story into perspective; like the ground-grubbing athletes of “Ajax” and “Castro,” “Hydrogen’s” engineers can be seen as the spirit of heedless masculinity, a miniature representation of the reckless competition, obsessions and thoughtless action soon to make a hash of the continents the Hindenburg is flying over.
Shepard equates love and hydrogen in the story’s title because they are both used to inflate unwieldy contraptions of unfounded hubris, projects that end in lethal explosions. And thus the masterful last line of ” Love and Hydrogen” which seems hopelessly opaque to someone unaware of the story’s larger context: “Life, motion, everything was untrammeled and without limitation, pathless, ours.”
It’s a theme that pops up many times in the collection—the loving husband with the secret habit of lying on the airport landing strip as planes plunk down feet away from his head in “Runway,” the remote vulcanologist running away from his ever-more-homicidally wrathful brother in “Krakatau,” the philandering scientist dodging both responsibility and love as his diving bell sinks through the ocean in “Descent into Perpetual Night.” Though all such protagonists do not reach quite as fiery an end as those in the title story, most at last realize the costs of their blind pursuits, and rue their inability to function independently of them.
Of course whether a story that relies on an external framework to fully connect can be called successful is a debatable point. Certainly, the blocks do not all fall into place in all instances, the lines between Communism, sexual attraction, or scientific observations seeming—absent a larger lens—thin at best. But I would argue that the control of language, the swipes of profundity and the ceaseless poise make this volume of short stories worthy of high praise. In any case, the above points more than adequately clear Shepard of the “empty gimmickry” label (whether hurled for good or ill), and points to whole new levels of his work that could steer many aspiring writers in fruitful directions.
Shepard also loves to explore what happens when the boyish proclivity for discovery, destruction and lusty entanglements goes wrong. Such is basically the subject of his new novel Project X, which details the lives of two high-school misfits as they prepare to shoot up their school. Like Shepard’s stories, this novel leaves itself open to charges of gimmickry, in this case exploiting a real-life tragedy in a “ripped from the headlines” ploy more suited to a weekly installment of Law and Order. Shepard could even be accused of being a Johnny Tag-along, following Michael Moore, Gus Van Sant (Elephant), and DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little) in interrogating both the real and imagined Columbine.
But hostile, struggling adolescents have been Shepard fixtures for many years. Project X’s Edwin Hanratty is a direct descendent of Eustace, the title character of a story in Love and Hydrogen, and Anson of “Glut Your Soul on My Accursed Ugliness,” in the same volume. All three characters are young, angry and inexplicably tormented. Though Anson is suffering from perceived physical ugliness and the spiritual deformity of his family’s developing divorce, and Eustace chafes against the newly-discovered hypocrisy of his Catholic school’s ideals, both boys’ reactions would seem to far outweigh their problems. Eustace acts out the most visibly, locking the faculty and student body outside of his school, ultimately plunging down a flight of stairs, taking his teacher with him, while Anson ends the story thinking, “someday he’d take himself into the woods and run his head into a tree.”
In the novel, even as Edwin gets beaten up a few times by various bullies and sports teams, we never see concrete proof of his outcast status. True, “kids across the hall chuckle and point” when he wears shorts on the first day of school, but the widespread systemic hostility most attribute to the origins of teenage bloodbaths simply doesn’t manifest. Most of the students at Edwin’s school just seem to ignore him, and a few even show friendly interest in him, including some girl classmates and a snotty sixth grader.
Whatever haunts Edwin’s psyche dwells entirely within himself, just as the rage of the narrators’ siblings in “Mars Attacks” and “Krakatau” erupted from inner wells. This could be seen as a major flaw in “Project X,” as there’s a lack of any sort of motivation or larger explanation for Edwin’s homicidal turn. Even the prelude to the shooting springs from nowhere. While discussing farcical, self-loathing plans to run for student government, Edwin’s only friend, Flake, comes up with a plan to lace the ventilation system of the school with a mild poison. Edwin plays along, asking questions of logistics, without making clear whether he actually considers the proposal seriously. Shepard should be admired for refusing to moralize or scapegoat, but Edwin’s general numbness and directionless misery may leave some readers puzzled and frustrated.
As usual, clues can be found by looking at Shepard’s other stories. Using a line from D.H. Lawrence for the title of “Glut Your Soul on My Accursed Ugliness” is a telling move, both for that story and for Project X. Lawrence has long been cast as the epitome of raffish masculinity, the paragon of the careless, roughshod approach to life. For Anson, Eustace and Edwin, this template has turned against itself, biting into their minds, skin and souls. Their bodies surging with testosterone, they find themselves powerless to effect anything in life whatsoever, unable to turn the rampant energy fueling their blood into any sort of productive endeavor. This leads to a rigid, anesthetized surface, queasily covering a tangled mass of anguish, confusion and abject terror. Instead of damning the consequences and forging a destructive trail through the universe, these characters cower at the very thought of their passage through life.
In Project X, Edwin spends his days in a toxic cloud of his own thoughts, unable to sleep, and mordantly sensitive to his negative effects on others. “If anything goes wrong anywhere, I’m to blame,” he thinks, in the face of another situation that isn’t really a big deal. No, he’s not melodramatically shrieking that, as so many teens have—instead, he truly believes it.
As events take their fatal path, in the end Edwin stands in paralyzed fear as he watches his friend fire lead into his classmates. His failure to live satisfactorily has rendered him unable to even lash out. As Edwin himself says, he is “a house burning down from the inside out.” And there’s no one else inside.
Project X, like the best of Shepard’s stories, thoughtfully grapples with a serious theme, using a flashy concept as a jumping-off place. What’s scary is that neither it nor the stories found in Love and Hydrogen tell how someone might manage to successfully grow up, without leaving behind a pack of bodies, both metaphorical and physical, in a long, jagged wake.