Pioneers and fools are deficient in judgment and sense, but brimming with vision. This is what I learned as I stayed up reading a collection of John Muir’s “most thrilling experiences”— as the back cover of The Wild Muir assures me. They are in fact adventures that by sheer miracle did not end in death.
I am only a third of the book in, but Muir has already rushed two grizzlies (on two separate occasions) and inched sideways for 30 feet like a tightrope walker on a three-inch cliff ledge, just so that he could espy a different view of the Yosemite Falls. Following this last exploit Muir wrote that “looking down into Yosemite, the death song of Yosemite Creek, and its flight over the vast cliff” was enjoyment enough “to kill if that were possible.” Or die, as the case may be.
If the fictional characters in Jim Shepard’s new short story collection The World to Come had any driving ethos, this would be it: Enjoyment enough to kill if that were possible -- or die as the case may be. With stories that take place anywhere from Crete 1300 B.C. to the contemporary United States, The World to Come is a book peopled by the fateful desire of the pioneering spirit and that high-risk, high-gain situation, where the unreachable may be grasped.
As with his other work, Shepard’s storytelling powers seem to lie with pulling you along scenes in which even the language seems to be smirking up at you. There you are, making your way past words like kablooie—when suddenly, in just a turn of phrase, sometimes a word, you find yourself treading an indefinite, beautiful depth of human longing, or the unfixable, wrenching self-knowledge of failure.
These short stories are so evenly masterful, it’s hard to pick a favorite. As it happens, most of them are based on real-life events—the failed Franklin expedition to the Arctic in 1845, for example, the first offshore Navy platform, the WWII suicide mission of the small British submarine Telemachus, the Montgolfier brothers and their invention of hot air balloons. Even so, Shepard allows for a wide interpretation of risk, training his eye on stunning disasters as well as quiet dramas—the two frontier wives who yearn for each other in this book's title story is infinitely touching.
Perhaps the most beautifully imagined story is The Ocean of Air. Told from the point of view of Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, whose large imagination prototyped the first hot air balloon, this is a story of an inventor left behind. Joseph-Michel stays at home drowning in debt as his older brother goes to Paris to conduct the business of their invention. The language is at most beautiful as Joseph-Michel grasps with creative intemperance at the confines of our world: “I often have fancied that man in his relation to the sky resembled marine organisms confined to the ocean’s floor, and that in order to discover the true conditions of the atmosphere it would be necessary to observe them from considerable heights. We live in the depths of an ocean of air.”
“Is there anything more exhilarating than carrying on alone out on the edge of a doomed world?” asks another character in another story.
Is there, indeed?
The World to Come is wholly imagined, spectacularly heartbreaking, and dismally entertaining. If John Muir were alive, he would have loved this book.
Jim Shepard reads at the Booksmith on Haight on Monday, March 27, at 7:30pm. More details here.