Alexander Masters

Cold comfort | 22 May 2010

A good story is made of bones.

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In Flight Entertainment

Helen Simpson

Cape, pp. 144, £

A good story is made of bones. It’s the reader’s job to flesh it into intimacy. In Helen Simpson’s adventurous new collection, In Flight Entertainment, the best stories rattle like skeletons; the worst, squelch.

The title piece is about a bullying businessman on a plane, up-graded to first class, pontificating: the scam of carbon-offsetting; the reason it’s pointless to stop using airplanes (‘In a word, pal — China!’); the inconvenience that the flight’s going to have to land in Iceland because some selfish guy in the seat across the aisle has just died. He’s brutally, comically awful. You long for him to die, gurglingly. Simpson, more sophisticated, lets him live, enrage you and get off at Chicago.

Many of the stories in In-Flight Entertainment are like this: a gasp and a getting on. Simpson holds back from saying too much. She leaves us to fill in the local damage. Is that business man me? Doesn’t he sound like the fellow living two doors down? Cancer, deafness, pornography, domestic suffocation, the oafishness of men, environmental miserableness and our inability to cope with it: a good game to play with Simpson’s work is to guess which of these subjects she’s experienced herself and which she’s simply sat at her writing desk and, feeling dyspeptic, hauled down from imagination.

In the first type she’s fresh and startling. In the second, too expected. She’s definitely been a middle-aged, bigoted man. She knows a lot about hotel life and marital entrapment. ‘Channel 17’ is superb: a poignant, humorous observation of three or four different responses to a woman rolling and unrolling her stocking on a hotel porn channel — you know immediately that she has been (or been with) all of these characters. But it’s difficult to decide about deafness. In ‘Sorry?’ Patrick, totally deaf, discovers the T-setting on his hearing aid allows him to listen in on what people are really thinking, which is silly, school-fantasy stuff. But that Patrick is ‘astonished at the storm of noise that had arrived with deafness’ is unforgettable. That comes from someone who knows.

Most of the pieces twine round the metaphor of the setting. In ‘Geography Boy’ two new students are cycling through France. He, a geographer interested in hidden troglodyte caves, thinks nothing is more important than activism to prevent the end of the world. She, studying medieval apocalyptic tapestries for an ‘End of the World’ module at Uni, thinks the actual approaching apocalypse dull and unromantic. They’re a dreary pair. I wish they’d got hit by a bus.

In ‘I’m Sorry but I’ll Have to Let You Go’, the 24-year-old Management Consultant with a New York job offer (‘Yessss!’) ditches his a 23-year old girlfriend ‘in Human Resources’. It’s cleverly and humorously written, revealing his atrociousness through his self-justification, but he’s a woman’s magazine sketch of a schmuck: ‘It was a pity about Sarah,’ he muses, ‘she had a great bum.’ The boy in ‘In the Driver’s Seat’ terrifying his girlfriend with his crappy fast driving — he’s on the Grazia list too. Simpson has never been a young man. She couldn’t think of a worse way to waste her time. These stories are insistent and flabby.

With ‘Diary of an Interesting Year’ Simpson is back at her best. It follows a woman making her way through the post-apocalyptic world, growing more desperate and animal-like, civility collapsing fast. Her first man is murdered. She (oh, bliss, he’s a young ’un too!) murders the second. The diary is a good format to get rid of Simpson’s occasional tendency to over-manage. Literally and stylistically (probably metaphorically too, only I was too gripped by the story to be bothered with that), bones jangle.