Sibling Rivalry: Jim Shepard, You Think That’s Bad?


Rumpus Book Club member, Anna Newbold, shares her thoughts about last month’s Book Club selection, Jim Shepard’s You Think That’s Bad:

As an only child, I feel reluctant to enter into any discussion on sibling rivalry. I sat at breakfast tables when my parents worked early, and have watched the down turned lips of a sister who missed out on the last bit of jam from the jar. I have watched fits of rage by brothers who wanted the front seat, and have seen others shed bitter tears over getting the ugly orange bear rather than the koala in the Christmas hat. I watched as an outsider and felt awkward. They wanted the one the sibling had. It was “not fair.” They always got the “good one.” I realized there was much more to this than I, with my only child ways, could understand. Jim Shepard’s collection of stories You Think That’s Bad has helped me understand a little more about those red-faced, teeth clenched, door slamming, weeping for the koala fits of rage, and the guilty residue that resides with ambivalence.

Shepard’s stories are filled with characters that often can see the futility of their desires and are embarrassed of their ignorance and naiveties, but seem stuck on a trajectory that leaves them feeling helpless or complicit. In two of these stories, “Happy with Crocodiles” and “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” the tension in his characters’ relationships with their siblings underpins their sense of themselves and their primary motivations. These characters carry with them their unresolved jealousies. Their desires to be recognized as worthy and good are also fraught with self-loathing and are ultimately self-destructive.

In “Happy with Crocodiles,” our narrator fights through mud and heat and insects that attack like pins. Amidst the turmoil of World War II, this young soldier recalls his relationship with his high school sweetheart, Linda. However, it soon becomes clear to his soldier friends, the reader and eventually the narrator himself that this relationship with Linda is bound up in his rivalry with his brother. In each memory, the younger brother finds the presence of his older brother having been there before him. When he first has sex with Linda she asks him, “Where’s your brother?”; when his brother enlists in the war Linda is crying, so he enlists too; his brother comes up to him in the kitchen and informs him, “so I hear you guys are going steady.” His brother seems to get enjoyment from the narrator’s sexual conquests, but at the same time wants him to be aware of his role in them somehow.

In an oedipal sense, this would seem a repeat. The older brother has enjoyed the privilege of a time when he alone could enjoy the affection of his mother. However, the younger brother’s desire for the affection and attention of the mother has always been shared. While the young infantry private endures the pain of war, he imagines his air force older brother (who gets twice as much leave as him) at home with Linda. He becomes aware of how compromised his relationship with Linda was and how this echoes the family structure of his childhood.

This oedipal conflict is further exasperated by the boys’ cold relationship with their absent father. He remembers, as a child, his father looking at them with hate. It made his brother “tear up” and run away first. He had stayed behind to see if “it was just my brother or both of us he hated.” Both boys suffer from this hatred for and from their father. This seemingly benevolent concern the older brother takes for his younger brother’s sexual maturity takes on caring paternal tone. The older brother informs their mother that her son “has a new hobby” when they talk of Linda at home. The older brother seems to have been successful in usurping his father’s power and is now the paternal figure in this house. Every way our protagonist tries to measure his own masculinity and independence seems paradoxically thwarted by the caring instruction of a helpful brother.  Like the paternal figures that would send their young sons to war, this type of fatherly care is ultimately fraught with corruption and suffering.  In these stories fratricide is a crime one can be guilty of just by wanting it to be so.

In the story “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” we meet a middle-aged narrator who has joined a team of avalanche experts in a very cold research expedition in Davos, Switzerland. Like in “Happy with Crocodiles,” the narrator endures the dangerous present while recalling a sibling rivalry that has brought him to this point. In this case, the narrator’s twin brother Willi died after being rescued from an avalanche on a skiing trip when they were teenagers. Their mother and the narrator deal with grief in a similar way. They both become obsessed with snow and for gathering as much information on what happens in an avalanche as possible. In their own ways, both mother and son feel an enormous sense of guilt and responsibility for what happened to Willi. They also share a feeling jealousy in relation to Willi that manifests itself in much the same way as wanting the same book about snow at the library.

The narrator is obviously jealous of the closeness of his mother and Willi. He recalls their tradition of summer walks–“you have twin sons, yet I always see you with only the one,” said a neighbor to the mother. In grief, the son now has the mother all to himself. However he will never have the ability to enjoy her love in the way his brother did. Any enjoyment will be racked with guilt of a death wish fantasy of his brother while alive.

His mother’s jealousy stems from Willi’s relationship with Ruth, who we learn from the story was a girl both the narrator and his brother seemed to only fantasize about. The narrator finds out in the course of the story the depths of their relationship, and so begins to understand his mother unspeakable anger and jealousy of the beloved son’s wandering affection. Both women in the narrator’s life become representative of a fantasy that he will never have access to because his desire is in what he lacks. He wants what his brother has had to self destructive ends. Lacan uses the German term “lebensneid” to describe this life end jealousy that is in the register of jouissance. The narrator sits in a hut about to be crushed by an avalanche realizing his absurd commitment to stepping into his brother’s wake and that his fate, like a hand-me-down, will at any moment “hurtle down” towards him.

The narrator of this story asks himself when faced with the adult Ruth: “Why does anyone choose one brother and not the other.”  I think this may be one of the questions at the heart of the rage of the backseat tantrums. Why not me? Only children don’t get to practice that feeling on siblings. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.