Still waters run deep with a writer like Helen Simpson. Famed for training her literary lens on the quiet dramas of domesticity; unhappy marriages wrapped in functionalism, harassed mothers gently loosing their minds in polite company, this new collection “In Flight Entertainment” both builds upon this reputation, and departs from it.
Within these 13 stories, situations play out in Simpson’s preferred landscape of the ordinary, such as the muted domestic malcontent in “Squirrel”, with a few jarring left-hand turns thrown in; the futuristic “Diary of an interesting Year”.
Indeed, the force of stories like “Squirrel”, in which a squirrel trapped under a bin lid reveals much about a suffocating marriage, or the title story, at the center of which lies a dead man and a transatlantic flight, is diluted by these left hand turns. There is a forced, superficial feel to the pieces like “Diary”, a story that may indeed feature a woman trapped by her life choices, but that plays out in a world made unrecognizable by environmental disaster.
This graphic imagining of a world turned lawless and savage is not original or particularly provocative. There seems little point to the narrative, and it lacks the poignant aftertaste that so many of her stories carry. The same goes for the flimsy “Ahead of the Pack”, which is essentially a first person sales pitch concerning the need to reduce our carbon footprint. This again has a forced quality, its credential lying in novelty, or some kind of half-baked admonition about our attitude towards climate change.
It is as though Simpson was challenged to do something different for this collection, but it smacks of difference for difference’s sake. And there is this continual bee in her bonnet about climate change, which should come across as a theme but feels more like querulous repetition to me.
One story wears the difference well; in “Sorry?” we are lead through the tragic-comic story of an old man and his new hearing aid, a device that gives him access to things he might rather not hear. And indeed those stories that are more classically Simpson are rewarding showcases of what she does best. Her caliber as an observer and a straight talker bring a grief, accessibility and sweetness to the works like “Scan” and “Homework.”
As a consequence I feel the collection is weakened as a whole, but the pieces that shine with the true Simpson touch remain worth the read.