'The World to Come' blends history and fiction in a short story collection

Jim Shepard's work is an astonishingly powerful demonstration of fiction’s capacity to transport us across time and space.

The World to Come By Jim Shephard Knopf 272 pp.

Jim Shepard’s new collection of short stories shows his mastery of a very specific genre – the fictional story based on a historical disaster. His previous book, the 2015 "Book of Aron," belonged to the more familiar genre of novels about disastrous episodes from history. It narrates the story of a young boy in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II: Basically everything gets steadily worse until the boy dies. It’s one of the few books that actually merits the beloved critical epithet “harrowing.”

His new collection, The World to Come, fictionalizes horrifying disasters from many cultures and periods. There’s the 1961 collapse of the Cold War radar station known as Texas Tower no. 4, the slow and excruciating starvation of the entire crew of the HMS Terror in 1848, a devastating hurricane and flood in 19th-century Australia, the loss of a British submarine in World War II, and a disastrous train crash in present-day America. He even includes a story about the eruption of Thera, circa 1600 BC, on the island of Santorini – an event that may have hastened the fall of the Minoans.

Not every story in the collection depicts cataclysm and mayhem. Two stories that might qualify as comic relief involve the denial of healthcare to a child who will die without an operation and a doomed love affair between two female farmers in 19th-century America.  Yet despite the seeming bleakness of the material, many of the stories are indeed very funny. Shepard avoids the trap of reducing the tragic to the monochromatic – even in the darkest of stories, humor, tedium, love, and the surreal co-mingle with the stark horror of annihilation by vast and pitiless forces. A line from Cormac McCarthy’s play "The Sunset Limited" encapsulates the sensibility of these stories: “The shadow of the ax hangs over every joy.”

The collection is an astonishingly powerful demonstration of fiction’s capacity to transport us across time and space. Much of this power derives from Shepard’s judicious use of historical research. Some casual fact-checking of the stories suggests that the physical and factual details of each story are largely drawn from historical sources. Aboriginal Australians did call the country’s great flattening wind the “kooinar,” the orchid known as Lady’s Slipper is a traditional folk remedy for fever, and the last desperate crew members of the Franklin expedition likely did engage in cannibalism. Shepard lists among his acknowledgments a wide range of diaries, academic studies, popular histories, collections of letters, and even the United States Congressional hearings on the collapse of Texas Tower no. 4.

These sources furnish the raw materials that give the stories much of their verisimilitude. But Shepard is also a talented ventriloquist, capable of plausibly voicing characters of different genders, ages, backgrounds, and dispositions. He captures with equal ease the mordant voice of a disgruntled employee of a modern healthcare company and the visionary ravings of Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, co-inventor of the hot air balloon. The versatility of the collection is deeply impressive.

Fiction based on actual events inevitably raises the question of where exactly research ends and invention begins. Did Montgolfier ever actually articulate the wonderful thought that humans live “in the depths of an ocean of air”? Were miniature hot air balloons called montgolfiers made of scraped animal membranes and sold on the streets of Paris after the first successful balloon launch? Were the men on the Franklin expedition to the Canadian Arctic allotted only 14 inches of hammock width to sleep? Did they make do with only two hours of light from lamp oil each day as supplies dwindled? These are just a few of dozens of examples of questions about the truth status of the material.

To some extent the aesthetic truth of the stories is all that matters; if they succeed as persuasive narratives, why nitpick over the veracity of details? Whether or not Montgolfier ever said anything similar to this – “We continue to fall short, like the objects we create.” – the line has great thematic resonance within the story. But in other cases, the facts do seem to matter. Shepard informs us that each Texas Tower cost $11 million to construct, and he also borrows the last name of one of the widows of a man who died in the collapse. He invites us, in short, to believe in the depth of his research without clarifying its extent.

Were there actually tapping noises heard by divers after the structure had sunk to the bottom of the sea? Did the wallet of one of the deceased seamen wind up inside of a giant sea scallop later caught by a fisherman? Perhaps the true answers to these questions are also unimportant. Yet if factual accuracy did not make at least some difference, then Shepard would not have researched so many details with such diligence.

This is a minor and surmountable problem. A brief note on his methods, similar to what many writers of popular history include in their books, would help clarify some of the thornier epistemic issues raised by such heavily researched historical fiction. But these questions do not detract from the scale of his achievement – the collection is an absolute pleasure to read, and Shepard provides an eloquent example of the potential of historically informed short fiction.

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