In-Flight Entertainment, By Helen Simpson
A nuanced collection about global warming, singes its wings on its doom-laden theme
Sunday 02 May 2010
For two decades, Helen Simpson has been issuing compact but potent broadsides of short fiction – four slim volumes to date since her 1990 debut Four Bare Legs in a Bed. Delivering on the witty but louche promise of that audacious first title, Simpson's acerbic and entertaining stories quickly declared her style: incisive, intelligent, humorous despatches from the front line of modern relationships, featuring characters striving to engage with the subtle meanings and coarse compromises of partnerships. Sex was high on the agenda, submissiveness low; and, while her material was refreshingly diverse, it rarely lacked a metaphorical stiletto or riposte to give piquancy to her stories.
An early crowning achievement came in Dear George, her 1995 follow-up, published after she had been pronounced one of Granta's "20 Best of Young British Novelists" – despite never having published a novel. "To Her Unready Boyfriend" is a delicious riff on Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" which re-works the metaphysical masterpiece as a woman's urgent, loving plea to a boyfriend gone deaf to her ticking biological clock. It is funny, clever, sexy, even flippant – but also anchored by the seriousness of the fact of life which gives rise to the plea. This combination is key to Simpson's prowess, giving her luxuriant prose a hard edge that defies any squeamish excess of sentiment.
In-Flight Entertainment, her fifth collection, still packs plenty of women railing against the injustice of maternity, keeping mum about affairs, or coping with manifest male immaturities. "Sorry?" features an emotionally austere father who gets clearer messages than he bargained for from his hearing aid, while "Up at a Villa" finds trespassing youths, exuberant after a sneaky skinny-dip, spying on a rented villa's sorry couple, whose marriage has foundered on her low esteem and his chauvinism. The nuanced meditation in "Scan", tightly bound with neatly segued imagery, maps the impact of a cancer diagnosis against the air pollutants that might have caused it.
Which brings us to the theme of this ironically titled collection. Diving away from a jetliner on the collection's dust jacket is Icarus, imperilled perhaps less by traditional hubris than by contrails. Most of the tales collected here obliquely or explicitly refer to global warming. "The Tipping Point", originally published in last year's charitable, awareness-raising Ox-Tales compendium, ventilates the selfish indulgence of cheap air travel, while the title story has a pensioner reminding an oafish first-class flier which generation will pay for such careless planetary stewardship.
Curiously, while the alarming sentiment underpinning many of these stories (none more fiercely than "Diary of an Interesting Year", a dystopic vision of societal collapse in the horribly near future) is true and vital, the net literary effect is mildly numbing. Simpson deftly picks at the excuses and prevarications of those determined to ignore the moral inconvenience that is global warming, just as she expertly anatomises those chafed areas that marriages tend to squirm around. But despite the muscular strength and succinct entertainment of the stories, the doomish density of her headline theme somehow dissipates the pithy attack that is the hallmark of Simpson's style – or perhaps simply defies the joie de vivre that inhabits her earlier feisty engagements between the sexes.
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