Jim Shepard – Lights Out in the Reptile House (W.W. Norton & Company, 1990, 285 pgs.): In recent years, author Jim Shepard has established himself as a master of fantastical short stories set in post-Revolution France, World War II-era Philippines, and ground zero of the Chernobyl disaster. He’s written vividly about wildly weird characters like the murderous Gil de Rais, anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He is masterful at lacing otherwise mundane details with emotional acuity, capturing the enormity of catastrophe from the relative perspective of an ant. It’s odd, then, that his third novel, Lights Out in the Reptile House, is so devoid of the qualities that make him such a cherished storyteller. Instead, Lights Out is only a precursor to his much later, much better work, a book that planted seeds that would flourish nearly a decade on in novels such as Nosferatu and Project X.
Karel Roeder is the fifteen-year-old protagonist in this geographically unidentified dystopia-in-the-making. He has few friends and spends most of his time at the reptile house at the local zoo. His father is a bitter good-for-nothing. His only real interest is the young girl Leda, for whom Karel harbors feelings. A wave of violent nationalism sweeps the country, and there are undertones of racial pride and purity in the regime’s battling against the ‘nomads.’ Karel is largely oblivious to the gravity of the nation-altering events occurring around him, though Leda is hyper-aware, a mouthpiece for Shepard to denounce the kind of detachment Karel and many of his neighbors respond to what’s unfolding.
The biggest problem is that there is absolutely zero detail given about the country in which these events take place. There is vague talk about some sort of civil war between the crumbling Republic (whom many in the novel blame for the country’s supposed current dire straits) and the Civil Guard, a resurgent regime with totalitarian aspirations. It’s not entirely clear how long the war has been going, or whether the Civil Guard have essentially eradicated the remnants of the Republic as an order (since they spend so much time hunting ‘partisans’), or what sort of promises and social programs beyond nationalistic obedience the regime offers. By purposely eschewing the kind of detail that would ground the abstract notions of authoritarianism the novel forewarns, its impact as social warning is diluted, rendering the threat of ‘this could happen anywhere’ meaningless, since the novel takes place in an amorphous nowhere.
One central theme in the book is the passivity of large parts of the civilian population, who are so accustomed to life being bad under the Republic (and again, we’re never made quite clear on just what is so bad about it, or why it is so—there’s a mention or two of high unemployment, but nothing much else) that they believe they have little reason to fear life becoming much worse under the iron grip of the Civil Guard. Indeed, while life for the average person does incur a steady descent, the changes are so gradual that each infliction is tolerated, even if with an increasing wariness, until it is too late to reverse course.
This theme, a flat line in Lights Out, is crystallized in Shepard’s later work, particularly the story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway. In the first story, “The Zero-Meter Diving Team,” a reputable Russian engineer recounts the series of failings that led to the Chernobyl disaster, and more importantly the Russian government’s desire to deny its existence—not just as a way to cover up a tragedy and an embarrassment, but as a way to erase from anyone’s mind that something like this was even capable of happening in a system of tight control. Shepard skillfully relays the scientific details in layman’s terms charged with emotional impact, and his constant hounding of the yes-men environment that allowed Chernobyl to happen makes the parallel he wishes to draw with America’s course (then 2007-ish) all that more clear. But with Lights Out’s insistence on existing outside of any identifiable location, the reader spends more time trying to tie the few details given to South African apartheid or Nazi Germany. Neither is a fitting comparison, and both were more gruesome than what Shepard is able to communicate here.
As Lynn Freed noted in her negative New York Times review, the novel is inundated with reported speech, a tic Shepard has not shaken but has at least polished. Because Lights Out is third-person, the heavy usage of reported speech robs us of the opportunity to learn more about the characters. In contrast, the first act of Shepard’s newest novel, The Book of Aron, is also laden with reported speech, but is told in first-person from a child’s perspective, and so the reported dialogue relays both Aron’s attitudes towards the information he shares and retains the morbid wit of the Jewish family’s interchanges.
The one effective part of the book comes in its closing pages, when Kehr, the officer who commandeers Karel’s house after his father disappears, tortures Karel despite knowing the teenager does not have the information he wants to hear. In fact, Kehr already has the information; he merely wants to hear Karel confirm it, even though Karel truly doesn’t know the answer. In those closing pages, Karel’s father, who had gone to join the Civil Guard, begs his son to give Kehr the information he wants. “What position do you think I’m in?” his father asks Karel, worried about what other soldiers might say about him, a final confirmation of the man’s short-sightedness and selfishness. A gruesome torture scene follows, and the known horror of totalitarianism is brought to life, but by then the novel is over. Like the citizenry in Shepard’s fictional world, the reader only too late realizes the full extent of the terror man is capable of inflicting upon itself.
Unfortunately, Lights Out in the Reptile House is only interesting as an artifact, a marker to indicate Shepard’s first real foray into a completely imagined world. For a first try, it’s competent—but it’s nowhere near the quality of his later work.