By Helen Simpson
Alfred A. Knopf. 176 pp. $24.
If the prospect of short stories about everyday life makes your heart sink a little, in fear of too much precious observation, read Helen Simpson's stories.
A simple act such as dropping the kids off at school is dissected and the layers of fear, ambivalence, even deceit that occupy the driver emerge. Is this what my life has come to, the driver might think. Or, Did I delete that incriminating e-mail before I left? Or, Are those headaches a symptom of fatigue, or something far worse?
Simpson expertly taps into those multiple layers. She has said that her rule for short-story writing is that something has to happen, but not too much. That sums up her stories, but then again, it doesn't entirely.
When I read the title story, for example, it struck me as witty but lightweight. On rereading it, I couldn't imagine why I'd thought it incomplete.
The title story, "In-Flight Entertainment," pits two smug know-it-alls flying first class from London to Chicago. As they argue over whether global warming is real and how much air travel accelerates it, a passenger nearby is dying: " â ¦ a man who was presumably the passenger-doctor had started to fit a drip. â ¦ Wow, thought Alan; it must be serious. He looked round again, uneasy. He could see a man playing Sudoku, and another forking food into his mouth like there was no tomorrow.
"Nobody else seemed bothered."
For Alan, the landing at O'Hare airport doesn't come a moment too soon. He has been through a transatlantic journey with death - not only with his unfortunate fellow passenger, but also in his debate with Jeremy, who takes the other side in the global-warming discussion. Jeremy, who is older than Alan, has given up trying to persuade others that global warming is real, and contents himself with telling others how grotesque it will be for the survivors when he is long gone.
In "Squirrel," the tension simmers below the surface as Susan, who has a snarky teenage daughter and a husband intent on squirrel disposal, considers the affair she is concealing. As daughter Lara sarcastically sings "Greensleeves," with which Susan used to sing her to sleep, Susan thinks: "This was rubbing it in. If she was going to feel guilty, this would make her feel it, hearing her seventeen-year-old carolling her password. Perhaps Barry had been tapping in all along. But she didn't feel guilty at all. It was none of his business. She only didn't want to get caught."
And yet, you sympathize with Susan. Barry and Lara "were tinderbox touchy, gigantically flinty. She was sick of acting as the lightning rod for all their casual rage."
Simpson, a British writer whose previous collections include In the Driver's Seat and Getting a Life, revels in the undomesticated part of domestic life. In "I'm Sorry But I'll Have to Let You Go," a 24-year-old newly minted management consultant prepares for a transatlantic career move to New York by breaking up with his girlfriend - "she was not in the end not by any means what you might call special," and the timing was all wrong. Sarah has other ideas, and you want to applaud her for the way she throws a monkey wrench into this epically self-absorbed young man's plans for success.
In-Flight Entertainment arcs toward greater gravity, though largely with a delicate touch. "Geography Boy" features two college students, Brendan and Adele, who are cycling through the French countryside, past fortresses and Apocalypse tapestries.
She is a pessimist, a history major who has chosen the End of the World module, while he has "faith in the world's adaptive powers." They spar, crankily. And yet, the landscape of war and environmental degradation they focus on can't kill off their joy in falling in love: "What still surprised both of them was the ease with which they had spoken to each other from the start and how they had not run out of things to talk about, even though they had been together exclusively now for ten days without a break. In fact, it felt like they had only just started."
Simpson's characters get drawn into the layers of fear, ambivalence, deceit, or pessimism. Some stay there, but in the more optimistic stories, they emerge from it.
In Simpson's earlier In the Driver's Seat, a character describes in anguished detail the catastrophes her friends and neighbors suffer. She dwells on the losses. Then, she is hit by a bus and loses a leg, but regains her perspective: "Some sort of cloud lifted and I was out of the woods. â ¦ It could have been worse. As Harry says, all the important bits are still there."
That perspective and hopefulness are expressed lyrically in "Charm for a Friend With a Lump," the final story in In-Flight Entertainment: "Nobody in their right mind looks at an old oak tree growing in strength and richness and thinks, You'll be dead soon. They just admire and draw strength from its example."
There's not a moment of preciousness or sentimentality in these stories. It's enough to give everyday life its good name back.