January 2012

“Long Since”


Jim Shepard’s stories come dressed in prose like a bespoke suit, under a sandwich board preaching not THE END IS NEAR but something more like ARE YOU STUPID? THE END ALREADY HAS YOU BY THE SHORT HAIRS. Consider the woman seeking the citadel of the Assassins in You Think That’s Bad: “I’m accompanied by a guide, Ismail, and our muleteer, Aziz… Both have long since given way to despair at the prospect of protecting a British woman traveling alone.” After an arduous journey, suffering malarial hallucinations that seem sure to consume her, she glimpses the citadel: “The site had long since been pumiced clean by the wind, although traces of the outer walls emerged here and there.” The common locution in these moments, long since, spins narrative tension around a new axis. We are rocketed out of Hollywood’s storytelling space, where a crack team of misfits can survive any avalanche and reroute any meteor, and set down in stories where human ingenuity and endurance mostly appear to be in service of courting further, deeper disasters. So a flood overtops the best-laid plans of the Dutch engineers, and more water is always coming (“The Germans have long since raised their river dikes to funnel the water right past them and into the Netherlands”). A cold wind howls at Polish winter mountaineers, its power only increasing (“Bieniek has long since given himself over to a kind of stupefaction”). By the time a young boy tells us, “My mother had long since taken to enfolding a crucifix in the bedcovers,” we know absolutely that the crucifix will not fend off any of the extant evils. Disaster, in other words, is not the narrative surprise of these stories, but a terror that has been long since in their midst: the slow boil of what we live with, and endure, or fail to.

—Casey Walker

Casey Walker has recently written essays on city life and memory palaces for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Brooklyn, where, as required by local ordinance, he is at work on a novel.

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