In-Flight Entertainment, By Helen Simpson

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The Independent Culture

Helen Simpson's latest collection of short stories - she brings one out every five years - opens on familiar ground. "Up at the Villa" is a blistering account of the trials of early parenthood revealed under too bright a Southern sun. The classic Simpson cast includes a baby, "a furious geranium in its parasol-shaded buggy", its mother, a "large, pale woman sagging about it in her bikini" and the father, "making a great noise with his two-day-old copy of The Times". Watching them are a group of young people who've broken into the garden for a swim, but instead find themselves witness to an ugly marital spat.

Yet it's clear from this book that child-rearing and relationship meltdowns have slipped down the author's agenda. The babies have been replaced by teenagers and sex by health scares. In the touching story "Homework", a 13-year-old boy persuades his mother to help him with a difficult English essay. After struggling along together, the boy tells her: "That's all right... You go. I can do it now." But while the children grow more independent, the adults become more vulnerable. In two stories "Charm for a Friend with a Lump" and "Scan", cancer runs riot, while grandparents embrace geriatric decrepitude.

The most sombre subject matter in the book - and explored in five different stories - is climate change. In uncharacteristically proselytising mode, Simpson seems keen to remind her readers of the apocalyptic future ahead. The title story, "In-Flight Entertainment", is set in the first class section of a Chicago-bound flight, and features a conversation between Alan, a climate-change nay-sayer, and Jeremy, a retired scientist convinced of global warming. The joke of the story is that neither man feels much for concern when a fellow passenger collapses and dies only a few seats away from them. When it's announced that the plane will be making a medical stop, they query the point of it.

References to climate change inform subsequent stories, including "Diary of an Interesting Year", but it's hard not to feel a little brow-beaten. The best stories remain Simpson's acerbic, humorous portraits of middle-class metropolitan life. "The Festival of the Immortals" imagines a literary festival for dead authors. Rabbie Burns keeps his adoring female audience waiting as he gets friendly with a publicity popsie in a stationery cupboards, while Thomas Hardy and Coleridge appear at an event called "The Notebook Habit."