Friday, January 6, 2012

Fiction Review: "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," Jim Shepard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Jim Shepard combines metaphor, philosophical insight, and character study in a masterful piece of short fiction.

"Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," by Jim Shepard, was originally published in Electric Literature 1 (July 30, 2009). It is featured in his 2011 collection, You Think That's Bad. One can also find it among the selections in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011, edited by Laura Furman.

Jim Shepard’s “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” is a marvelous short story. It uses a single encompassing metaphor for its philosophical foundation, from which it builds a narrative that functions as an analogue in microcosm. The metaphor’s vehicle is also incorporated as a literal element. And from there it creates an extremely poignant character study. One is both moved by the story’s meanings and electrified by Shepard’s skill in putting it together. Who knew a story about studying avalanches could be so affecting?

The story’s present tense is 1939, set in and around Davos, Switzerland. Eckel, the narrator, is a member of a team that is studying the phenomena of avalanches on the slopes of the Weissfluhjoch summit. The team is there at the behest of the Swiss government, which is looking to develop avalanche defense measures. Eckel is the only team member who isn’t a scientist or engineer. He describes himself as “the touchingly passionate amateur,” and his interest in avalanches is a highly personal one.

In an extended flashback, the reader learns why. When Eckel was sixteen, he and his twin brother Willi had gone on a weeklong school ski outing. Their class had left the hotel just before a warning of avalanche conditions had arrived. Willi and most of their group had been caught in an avalanche as Eckel watched from above. Willi was one of those rescued, but he died a few days later. A sense of guilt haunts Eckel afterward; a cut from one of his skis is what triggered the avalanche. He and his mother become obsessed with the phenomena in the years that follow, and the erudition of his mother’s research journals get him selected for the Weissflujoch study team.

It becomes quickly apparent that Shepard intends the avalanche as a metaphor for life’s randomness, and how that randomness can overwhelm one. Sometimes things just happen; they come out of nowhere, and there’s no rhyme or reason to them. As one of Eckel’s fellow team members says near the story’s end, “an avalanche’s release depends on a system of factors so complicated that prediction involves as much divination as science.” Life is like that, too; it's a pithy analogy to make. Hindsight is 20/20, but one can never truly anticipate what will happen. Something as innocent as shoveling snow from a roof can start an avalanche that destroys a local church. And, as in Eckel’s case, an avalanche can change the direction of one’s life. People can try to assign blame, such as when the parents of Eckel’s classmates blame the wholly innocent teacher for their children’s deaths, but such reactions are folly. In life, one never knows what to expect.

Eckel is overcome by another avalanche of sorts on a supply trip to Davos. Shepard amusingly dresses this up in another metaphor--here it is slipping on the ice and falling down the steps--but this is an avalanche just the same. Eckel encounters Ruth, a female classmate that he and his brother were both infatuated with, and who was standing with him when the catastrophe occurred. She left to visit her grandparents shortly afterward and never returned. She’s now a schoolteacher in Davos, and over coffee, she confesses what happened. During a camping trip with some classmates about a month before Willi’s death, she and Willi had slept together. She had become pregnant. Eckel doesn’t know how to deal with the emotions this stirs up. His predicament is compounded by Ruth’s tentative signals that she’s now interested in a relationship with him.

It’s at this point that the story makes its full transition into character study. Eckel becomes fixated on Ruth, and his fixation is borne of the fact that the feelings she stirs are unpleasant and, as feelings invariably are, beyond his control. He’s hurt by the knowledge that she passed him over in favor of his brother. That pain is also implicitly caught up in the jealousy he feels towards Willi, as well as the guilt he feels as a result. His anxiety over her apparent present interest in him only escalates things. He responds by trying to dominate her. He insists they meet when he wishes, and then on a moment’s notice. He demands she tell him more about the pregnancy and whatnot, and then often answers for her before she can respond. Inside he’s belittling himself, running away from the prospect of building something with her now.

The pathos of this is made all the more moving by the reader’s recognition that Eckel responded to the avalanche that killed his brother in almost exactly the same way. His interest in the phenomena isn’t the result of curiosity so much as it is the consequence of wanting to control a circumstance that has affected his life so profoundly. He wants knowledge of avalanches in order to defeat them. Deep down, he wants to ensure one never has the power to upend his life in that manner again. Ironically, he has only given the avalanche the control that he sought to undermine with his pursuits.

Shepard resolves the story on something of an upbeat note: Eckel and his team rescue a pair of Germans who are trapped on a slope. They do so with equipment and procedures that have been developed from their studies of snow and avalanches. It’s heartening to know that knowledge is possible, and that challenges can be confronted and possibly mastered. But at the same time, Shepard remains true to the story’s guiding insight: one can be overwhelmed by circumstances without notice, and nothing one can do can prevent it. The characters aren’t allowed to forget this, either; one of the team members sets off an avalanche by a step in the wrong place. No one is harmed, but the story concludes with Eckel imagining both surviving an avalanche and dying in one. The way he sees himself in both situations are apt tropes for his character. These also provide a stirring epiphany for the reader: perhaps self-knowledge is the most that can be hoped for.

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