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Helen Simpson, In-Flight Entertainment – TLS


Helen Simpson’s fifth collection of short stories (she has delivered one every half decade since 1990) begins with a sparkling aperitif, fizzing and aerated as a glass of champagne. ‘Up at a Villa’ is a rare story for Simpson, bringing her usual drama of confinement out into the glittering light of the French Mediterranean, though, as in much of her writing, it comes with an undertow. Four sun-stroked sleepers are roused by the sound of a bawling baby. They are interlopers at the villa who have broken in to splash in the pool, then devoured a picnic and fallen asleep behind a screen. The angry baby stops wailing when her mother heaves her up onto a huge brown nipple, and the hidden four watch horrified by the spectacle of lactation and the woman’s squabbling with her husband. For him “the idea” of a holiday is to get away from it all; for her, it’s a chance to talk about Us – his ebbing desire, her failure as a mother.

“Oh gross!”, is the judgement of the young eavesdroppers, sniggering at the “sagging”, burdened couple. But in this tableau of male cruelty (“It’s just a bit different now you’ve gone all sort of, you know, floppy”), and female inarticulacy, the youngsters sense the future trap awaiting them. When the woman lets out a howl of grief, the trespassers break cover – to the amazement of the transfixed family – and fly off “on winged feet”. This brilliantly compact story takes a form favoured by Simpson: hitching her wagon to another writer’s train; here she makes use of Somerset Maugham’s novella, Up at the Villa, and its themes of pity and egotism. She is also glancing back to her beginnings – her first book won the Somerset Maugham Award – while the collection as a whole gives an indication of where she’s heading. In an Introduction to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Simpson noted that Carter was becoming “less concerned with sexuality than survival”. That seems a fair assessment of her own career mid-point.

In the continuing war in Simpson’s stories between biology and technology, technology (and its effects: cancer is a recurring subject), is gaining the upper hand, though as for many women writers of the past half century – Doris Lessing, Carter, Margaret Atwood – they remain vitally linked. Indeed, the most prevalent images in Simpson’s canon are of the baby and the plane. (It’s not hard to imagine a tour de force in which she puts the bawling baby on the plane and blows the whole thing up.) She has been admired for her comic depictions of resentful mothers, but there is a current of anger running through her work that suggests she should be read less collusively. In the title piece of her first collection, ‘Four Legs in a Bed’, a woman dreams of being “Infected with vermin” and wonders if this is “an equivalent of pregnancy”; in ‘Labour’ from the same book, the Goddess of Childbirth upbraids today’s “spoilt” women with horror stories about hacking infants out with “pot-hooks, spoons, forks”, and death from septicaemia: “these days you hardly know you’re born.”

‘Heavy Weather’ (from Dear George), finds a mother overwhelmed by her daily routine: “The thought of having to organise all the food, sheets, milk, baths and nappies made her want to vomit.” And in ‘Hey Yeah Right Get a Life’, a woman chastises herself for egotism: in motherhood, selflessness is the order of the day, “even if it made you spat on by the world. By your husband. By your children. By yourself.”

It’s true, Simpson also captures the zaniness of kids, and an infant’s sweet-breathed mildness, but always with a degree of detachment, for fear any flow of emotion might induce the “insanity” of wanting another. The bitterness of the tales derives from the fact that, unlike their mothers, these women have chosen their lives, yet feel coerced, victims of history’s confidence trick that still leaves them holding the baby. This is why Simpson’s emblematic baby is of the sucking-the-life-out-of-you variety. Her plane, in contrast, is often seen in miniature, ornamentalised, a sign of freedom and wealth. Tom, a philandering foreign correspondent, in ‘If I’m Spared’ (Constitutional), looks up to the night sky and sees “a jewelled aeroplane”. He follows its trajectory “hungrily” and longs to be gone, to Belarus, Haiti, Tashkent, anywhere away from the daily chores of taking out the rubbish and “bonding” with his daughter.

A similar thought occurs to Alan, a business man upgraded to First Class, in ‘In-Flight Entertainment’, who is unaccountably moved by a picture of a “a shrunken globe with a jewel of an aeroplane”. The entertainment in question is a showing of the plane sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, though Alan’s viewing pleasure is continually interrupted – by someone dying across the aisle, by a climate scientist cheerfully regaling him (“In a word, pal – China!”), and by thoughts of his parents, whingeing about polar bears and carbon footprints. An earlier story, ‘Millennium Blues’, plays out from the ground, where another fractious mother waits for her husband to fly in. This time Simpson does crash the plane; several of them, piled up over Heathrow, fall out of the sky, destroying the domestic scene below.

Less catastrophically, lovers are parted in ‘The Tipping Point’ and ‘Geography Boy’, where global warming is the cause of alienated affection. The protagonists may not believe, as Alan does, that “finger-wagging types” are “getting everywhere”, but they are irritated – and their affairs threatened – by the ubiquity of the argument. (“I wanted to talk about me, you and me, but the apocalyptic zeitgeist intruded.”) It’s all packaged with Simpson’s deadpan wit – she is one of the most sharply funny writers in England today – but humour can be quietist: we may just be amusing ourselves to death.

As if to forestall such an outcome Simpson’s final quartet examine the power – and possibilities – of the imagination. In ‘Homework’, a mother helps her son with an essay about Life-Changing Events by inventing a counter-life in which his parents divorce: Dad gets a new girlfriend who can’t cook, Mum goes backpacking round the world. The story is made-up, a kind of conscious dreaming that incorporates family history and tensions in the marriage. It is also a meditation on the nature of storytelling – where plausibility is needed, how far to unleash the imagination. (Simpson won her first job working for Vogue in this manner, creating a life less humdrum: “I first of all wrote [the application] straight, it was so boring – basically I did homework – so I made up a life, I gave myself…dramatic divorcing parents.”)

‘Festival of the Immortals’ sees two old women standing in line for a literary event. They note how their own history – once they drew stocking seams with eyebrow pencils – is absent from the books they’ve read: “There’s only Mrs Ramsey, and she’s hardly typical.” The conceit about the Immortals (dead writers reified as celebrities) is nicely sustained: “Look, that must be Charlotte Bronte in her bonnet…I was right! She is short.” But it is in the women’s acute observations about literature, its pleasures, oversights (“hardly typical”) and relation to life (“I can’t be read like a book. I’m not dead yet…Things might change”) that we sense how fine a writer Simpson has become.

‘Diary of an Interesting Year’ adds to the recent list of novels on ecological themes – The Year of the Flood, The Road and Solar – though more closely resembles earlier endgames such as Memoirs of a Survivor and The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in 2040, the story charts Britain’s post-meltdown disintegration. A couple face mosquitoes, rats, tumours, diarrhoea, then refugees arrive and evict them from their home. They travel up the country, ending in a tree-house grinding insects into paste. In the literary imagination this is a well-trodden path. But what exercises Simpson – and perhaps goes someway to explaining why women in her fiction can often seem petulant – is their continued precariousness. We may appear to have moved beyond the point where biology is destiny but the warning here is that if civilisation falls apart, men will become “throwbacks”, reverting to the status of hunters – of animals and women. The final words, Simpson’s message to a doubtful future, are “good luck, good luck, good luck.”

Her endpiece, the most moving and technically adroit story in the collection, is ‘Charm for a Friend with a Lump’. The addressee has cancer, though the sick body belongs to us all – to the body politic. What can art do in the face of our self-destructiveness, in the face even of death? Do what it has always done. In the guise of the ancient enchantress and the modern doctor, she reminds us of art’s energising power: “Active dreaming…is what I would prescribe”; summoning to her side those words that have acted like a balm and a boon – the ripe pleasure of The Song of Soloman, the midsummer’s eve garden of Shakespeare and Tennyson. But there is now no unpolluted place of escape: the walled garden, the wild wood, she knows these too are poisoned and choked, so it’s hard “to distinguish between healthy growth and uncontrollable proliferation. There’s a fine line, and what I am casting a spell for is that nothing inside you has stepped over.”

This review appeared in the TLS as ’Babies and Planes’ on 5.5.2010, and on the Times website as ‘In Flight with Helen Simpson‘.

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