What Can We Steal From Jim Shepard’s “Tedford and the Megalodon”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Tedford and the Megalodon,” short story
Author: Jim Shepard (Fan Twitter feed: @JimShepardfan)
Date of Work: 2002
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story made its debut in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales, an anthology that began life as issue 10 of McSweeney’s.  (One of those publications that I call a “teenage crush” journal because I will love them far more than they’ll ever love me.)  Here is the teaser that the McSweeney’s folks posted to tantalize readers.  Please purchase the book from your local independent bookstore.

Bonus: Mr. Shepard shared his thoughts about writing with O Magazine.  Here is an interview Mr. Shepard gave to Bookslut.  Here‘s a very interesting interview Mr. Shepard gave to BOMB Magazine.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure

Discussion:
Roy Henry Tedford is a 33-year-old explorer.  He’s the kind of man who loves humanity and loves culture, but is willing to disconnect himself from everyone else in order to contribute to our understanding of the world.  Tedford takes off in search of the Carcharaodon Megalodon, a monster rumored to live in the Antarctic.  After stocking up on provisions, Tedford lugs his rifle and lantern and canoe into the Great Unknown and finds what he was looking for…in a number of ways.

I can’t help but begin my analysis by discussing what I believe McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales represents.  If you take a look at Michael Chabon’s introductory editorial comment, you will find an important way forward for our literary world.  Mr. Chabon points out that short fiction took an insular turn sometime around the middle of the twentieth century.  The short story scene was far more popular and diverse than it is now in many ways.  It was possible for “literary” fiction to include “ripping yarns.”  Today, the “literary story” seems to guide the critical conversation in many places.  In the past, “short fiction” could refer to “any one of the following kinds of stories: the ghost story, the horror story, the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war, or historical story; the romance story.”

I love so much of the work in the “mainstream literary scene,” but I worry that insularity explains why so many of the general public are strangers to the contemporary short story.  Chabon’s anthology is a wonderful step toward addressing the injustice we may have done to the short story.  Just look at the cover of the book…it’s one of those beautiful pulp-style paintings of a lion tamer-type guy fighting a half-man/half-panther!  Awesome!  Looks like something cool is going to happen in these stories.

The works Chabon chose (and wrote) are indeed as pulse-pounding as they are well-written.  Now, I don’t mean to say that people in the “writing community” don’t like genre work.  I know I do and I can’t imagine any of my friends dismissing a science fiction story outright.  (I have also maintained my dream of being in Asimov’s for twenty years now.)  I suppose that what I’m hoping is that we renew our commitment to the “woman on the bus.”  We all need to do a better job, somehow, of broadening the audience for contemporary literature.

Mr. Shepard’s story is a fantastic example of work that is both “literary” and entertaining.  The gentleman demonstrates a firm grasp of craft while telling a story that is a lot of fun.  (Even if it is a little scary.)  At its heart, this is an adventure tale.  These have been around…well…forever.  Robinson CrusoeThe Odyssey, the works of Jack London, Star Trek…these are all timeless because they appeal to the innate human need to simply DISCOVER.

What makes the story “literary” in addition to “fun?”  One big reason, I would assert, is the structure of the story.  The piece is 17 pages long.  The first 8 pages are devoted to developing Tedford’s character.  The final 9 pages are centered upon Tedford’s voyage.  Why does this structure make a lot of sense?  Well, we care about the Megalodon a lot more than we otherwise would because we know what the beast means to Tedford.  (Hence the felicitous title.)

Could Mr. Shepard have begun the story in the middle, as Tedford is on the brink of discovery?  Sure.  But the reader would miss out on a great deal.  I can illustrate the principle through the use of movies.  Everyone in the world should see the film Idiocracy.  In the film, the most average man on the planet is reanimated after 500 years, only to discover that he’s now the smartest person on the planet.  As Joe wanders around the city, he learns about the culture of the America into which he’s been thrust:

Why does Joe look uncomfortable while watching the movie Ass?  It’s not because he’s offended by seeing a part of the human body.  He’s uncomfortable because he hasn’t been drawn into the narrative.  When Joe becomes the Prezadent of Uhmerica, he uses his inaugural speech to push a literacy narrative:

“People wrote books and movies.  Movies that had stories.  So you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting and I believe that time can come again…”

We care about Tedford and his personal quest means something to us.  Apply the principle for movies.  The Transformers movies?  Not so great.  Why?  Because the characters are puppets that move around between explosions.  Lethal Weapon?  That’s a fantastic film.  Why?  Because we care about Riggs and Murtaugh and there are big stakes for both characters.

I also love the way that Mr. Shepard uses tone in the story.  Both “halves” of the narrative are in third person, but it felt to me as though Mr. Shepard began the story with diction and a point of view reminiscent of an epic story.  Tedford is, in a way, withheld from the audience as the reader begins to understand him and the world he wishes to conquer.  The second section seems to shift.  Mr. Shepard (and his narrator) dives far deeper into Tedford, slowing down and giving you much more of a moment-by-moment account of his journey.

To keep with the movie theme, I’ll liken the technique to zooming in and out with a camera lens.  Once we have the broad strokes, we may find it felicitous to zoom in very closely on the character in the extreme situation.

What Should We Steal?

  • Remember that there are millions of potential readers out there who want cool stories.  Do I have all of the answers?  No.  Do I have any answers?  Not really.  I just wish we could create more new readers than is currently the case.
  • Drama should emerge from the characters instead of being thrust upon them.  Les Miserables is a classic because the characters are complicated individuals and must deal with unpleasantness, some of which is their own doing.  Saw 9: See Saw Run is not a classic because the characters are disposable placeholders.
  • Shift tone judiciously.  Not only must we skip the boring and unnecessary parts of our characters’ lives, but we must also slow down and show off the moments of beauty and epiphany to which we’ve been building.

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