The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
originally published in Electric Literature
I’ve watched Jim Shepard undertake a massive project of research and imagination for about a year now. When a story in 2010’s Best American Short Stories appeared as “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” in which Dutch characters undergo the effects of climate change and the eventual failure of the dikes for which the Netherlands is known, I assumed a neophyte writer with a graceful knowledge of Dutch water systems had gotten a story published in McSweeney’s. It wasn’t until a few months later that Jim Shepard was on NPR, talking about his project.
Like his earlier book, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Shepard takes an astounding ability in research to craft expertly detailed short stories of erudition and authenticity. The new book, published last year, is called You Think That’s Bad, and its topics include the life of the special-effects creator of Godzilla, the Pacific Theater of WWII, and mountaineering in the Himalayas. It is clear that we are dealing not only with a master of the historical short story, but with a master of the contemporary one.
“Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” does not disappoint. The characters are engaged in the dangerous work of avalanche research in the late 1930s. Headquartered 9,000 feet above Davos, the group, who calls themselves “Die Harschblödeln,” or the Frozen Idiots, battles the cold while compiling a book on snow cover.
As you might imagine, each character has a particularly personal interest in uncovering the mysteries of avalanches: almost everyone has experienced an intimate tragedy at the white hands of a snowslide. The narrator’s central, human conflict here was born from one such experience when his brother was swept away during a ski outing.
But these histories and tensions serve to hold together the most important aspect of this story: the details.
From the grand to the minute, realistic details carry the narrative weight and excellence of this piece. Each character has a thorough backstory of professional experience and personal investment. Haefeli, the group’s unofficial leader, lost his father to an avalanche when he was eighteen. That day, the snow
dropped down the steeper slopes above his town with its blast clouds mushrooming out on both sides. His father had sent him to check their rabbit traps on a higher forested slope and had stayed behind to start the cooking pot. The avalanche dropped five thousand vertical feet in under a mile and crossed the valley floor with such velocity that it exploded upward two hundred feet on the opposite hillside, uprooting spruces and alders there with such force that they pinwheeled through the air. The snow cloud afterward obscured the sun.
Later, when the narrator describes the loss of his brother to an avalanche, the natural beauty of their surroundings provides all the necessary detail. Before making it to the summertime ski run, they traversed “meadows where miniature butterflies wavered on willow herbs and moss campion.”
I shouldn’t be so astounded by the imagination of a well-known writer, but I am. The specificity of details here—the rabbit traps, the snow falling five thousand vertical feet in under a mile, willow and campion—all serve to foment not only an image of what’s happening but the believability that it’s true.
The verisimilitude of the facts presented here serves to downplay the fictive nature of the story. It seems important that in an era when nonfiction reigns supreme, a good story with a hearty soup of detail can ring true.
The rest of the story follows the usual progression of plot. The narrator regains contact with Ruth, the childhood friend who was with him when his brother was swallowed by the avalanche. Ruth and the narrator’s brother were in love before the avalanche, the narrator discovers, and a child was born. The tensions that mire their attempts at rebuilding a relationship pull the story along. But the human conflict is disrupted by a climactic scene in which the researchers must rescue a group of stranded Germans.
The story is resolved with what seems characteristic Shepard style. There is no epiphany—Shepard, like Charles Baxter, is among a group of writers who end their stories in medias res, in a way that fights the inevitability supposed by a story about avalanche researchers—and the end hangs in a sort of experience of inevitability that is not too unsatisfying. After realizing his work is all he has, he imagines himself swallowed in an avalanche “tonight, or tomorrow night, or some night thereafter, [when] the slopes above us will lose their patience and sound their release.”
The broader metaphors of fate are served up by the avalanche, which can strike without warning and from which there is no escape. The incalculable factors that serve up an avalanche are as mysterious as kismet. Perhaps it is indeed inevitable that the researchers be eventually consumed by the fate that hurdles down at them.