The World to Come: Stories by Jim Shepard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 272 pp)

Jim Shepard is the author of four previous collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, which won The Story Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his short fiction has often been selected for Best American Short Stories and The Pen/O Henry Prize Stories. The most recent of his seven novels, The Book of Aron, won the PEN/New England Award and the Sophie Brody Medal for Excellence in Jewish Literature. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with his wife and three children and three beagles, and he teaches at Williams College.

Who Needs Pay?

A hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. A colloquialism held classically for managers, the United States economy holds this operating assumption. If the average person works hard, just compensation becomes the result. When the company prospers, the employees prosper at an equal rate of advancement. Classic motivational carrots and sticks implies that managers and employees alike hold shared interest in the flourishing of the company; everyone benefits. Even more, managers have always found it in their best interest to pay people well. Happy employees are engaged employees. Turnover is expensive. And well-compensated employees buy things. People often associate the success of Ford’s Model T with Ford’s decision to pay his employees enough to buy the Model T.

Given this understanding, 2017 has placed a burden on my egalitarian and collectivist perspectives. Statistically, the once-lockstep association between productivity and compensation has shattered. While employees continue to work at a more efficient pace to produce more goods, wages are falling flat. The difference slips into the pockets of shareholders who, in turn, heap praise on executives and bump up the executive compensation packages. As a result, society leans plutocratic, where the majority of the resources funnel to the few and the masses are left scraping the bottom of the barrel for survival.

To Plutocracy!

It seems as if almost every institutional decision points toward this plutocratic existence, a place where the few can conduct a cocktail party while the world burns around them, like Mr. Robot recently depicted so apropos.

The classic understanding of economic flourishing would suggest plutocracy leads to societal demise. When the rest of the world can no longer afford to engage in the marketplace, civilization dies.

Within this understanding of how the world works, Jim Shepard’s The World to Come offers a collection of stories highlighting the many ways indifferent, plutocratic institutions grind down and spit out the people it relies upon to keep the lights on.

Texas Tower no. 4

In the opening story, Shepard depicts the real-life Air Force catastrophe of Texas Tower no. 4 through the framing device of phone calls home to spouses.

“’So they’ll just evacuate you until spring, then?’ Jeannette asked Louie once he’d shared the news on his leave. They’d been lying together, and Louie answered that he didn’t see what else the Air Force could do, given how badly no. 4 was damaged. And Jeannette startled him by shouting, ‘Don’t lie to me about this!’ and then rolling away. And after he’d driven back to base, she found under her pillow a note that read, ‘I love you SO much.’ It was paper-clipped to a booklet entitled SAFETY TIPS FOR LIVING ALONE” (21).

Death’s Public Relations

Shepard illustrates the deadening life of a PR worker in an insurance agency hellbent on denying coverage.

“He was talking about my Horror Stories inbox, which was so nuts by that point it took me a full five minutes to scroll though it. I work for the PR arm of America’s largest health insurance company, and the last few months the entire Eastern Seaboard had apparently been denied claims for reasons that would make any self-respecting media outlet sit up and take notice, and I was having trouble writing up the explanations as to why. Some of the clients, if you had any kind of heart, it wasn’t easy to explain why they should be shit out of luck” (37).

Positive Train Control

He also outlines how the profit motif overwhelms any moral faculty for human life in the freight train industry.

“All sorts of things could’ve made this work safer, and deregulation gutted every one of them. Going slower is always safer, but the speed limit for extremely hazardous materials got bumped up to forty miles an hour. In emergency stops, electronic braking systems can keep the cars from piling into one another, but the companies said they were too expensive. Shorter trains have a much lower chance of derailing, so our union asked for a 30-car limit, but most of the trains now haul 100 to 120. Pressure-relief valves on the tank cars reduce the risk of explosions but are only recommended, not required, by the National Transportation Safety Board. And with the track problems, better inspection would help, but here’s how big a job that is: even Amtrak, the runt of the litter, operates over twenty-two thousand miles of track” (165).

Each story, in its own way, announces the plutocratic foundations of society. Time and time again, the stories place the competing interests of human life and profit on a balance. And unfortunately, human life loses. The World to Come is a sobering look at institutional transgression. Not a light read. But recommended if you can stomach the darkness.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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