A dazzling collection of stories from internationally acclaimed writer Helen Simpson, touching on everything from global warming and technology to health and aging to marriage and family life. Whether Simpson’s subject is single women or wives, marriage or motherhood, youth, young love, homework or history, In-Flight Entertainment is addictive reading that walks a line between being wickedly funny and dark. These thirteen stories brilliantly share the small details of interaction that reveal larger secrets and inner conflicts of contemporary living. They unerringly capture a type, a social class, a pattern of behavior, a generation.
Excerpted from In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson. Copyright © 2012 by Helen Simpson. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Helen Simpson is the author of four previous collections of short stories, Getting a Life, Four Bare Legs in a Bed (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), Dear George, and In the Driver's Seat, as well as one novel, Flesh and Grass, and A Bunch of Fives: Selected Stories. She is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London.
Q: Climate change is a theme that runs through many of the stories in “In-Flight Entertainment.” Was this a conscious decision on your part, or did the environmental themes develop within each story organically?
A: No, I don’t think it was a conscious decision, and I know I’m not interested in writing polemic (my view being, Why would anyone want to know my views on climate change? They’re no more illuminating than anyone else’s!). But it’s always enjoyable when you’re writing to zoom in on what’s currently uncomfortable, and I’d noticed that one such usefully touchy subject now is whether we ought to cut back on air travel for the sake of the future. This suggestion never fails to annoy. That’s what started me off, I think; then, over several years, I found myself returning to the subject from different angles, treating it as a love story, a dramatic monologue, a satirical comedy, a sales pitch and a dystopian diary. They’re all here in this collection.
Interestingly enough, the short story form is particularly good for uncomfortable or edgy subjects like this because it doesn’t allow you to sink down or lose yourself. When you read a novel, it feels natural to hand yourself over and suspend your critical faculties—you’re lulled and dulled as (on the whole) less is demanded of you. Whereas reading a short story you have to stay alert; it’s more of a performance. Ideal for an awkward theme like climate change…
Q: In a discussion of your previous collection, you wrote that the only rule you’d been able to come up with for short stories is: “Something’s got to happen but not too much.” Do you still find this to be true? Do readers ever write to you wanting to know what happened next to the characters in a story?
A: Yes, I think that still holds true for me. It’s almost impossible to lay down the law about the short story form because it’s capable of such variety. That’s also why story collections are harder to sell, of course—because of their very variousness they’re far more difficult to describe or review than novels. With a collection of stories of varied tone and voices and different subject areas, how is it possible to sum it up in a few words?
And yes, readers have occasionally asked about what happens next to the characters in a particular story. The simple answer is: I don’t know.
One of Katherine Mansfield’s most anthologized stories is ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel,’ and at one point she commented, “Even dear old [Thomas] Hardy told me to write more about those sisters. As if there was any more to say!” It’s lightness of touch you’re after as well as power.
Q: Many of the issues that you discuss through your stories are ones that readers will personally identify with—such as child rearing, caring for an elderly parent, relationship troubles—albeit with a twist. Do you write stories with your readers in mind or do just pick up themes and ideas to incorporate into your work from daily life?
A: Yes I do draw on daily life, but in the sense of, “Oh, that’s useful, I’ll have that.” More than a decade ago a stranger died near me on an aeroplane; it was distressing and sad at the time, but the writer in me stored it away for later. Years on it became the central incident in the title story here. But this sort of useful event or scene can equally well appear in a dream—a fair number have to me. So, yes.
In a way, though, I imagine short stories are less likely to be autobiographical than novels—by their nature they are likely to draw more heavily on generic experience and less on the idiosyncrasies of individual characters. (More than a little character exploration in a story and you’re edging towards a grotesque.) The stories I’ve been interested in writing recently have been those where the experience is common or typical—as in a song; that way you can cut down on names and status details, particularly if the story is very short (for example, ‘Charm for a Friend with a Lump’). Although of course the minute I say that I think of other sorts of story where the interest lives in precisely those details…
Q: Perhaps the most powerful story in the collection is “Diary of an Interesting Year,” in which the fears of climate change from previous stories culminate in a post-apocalyptic world. Was this a difficult story to write? Did it take you longer than some of the others?
A: No, it was far less difficult to write than some of the others! I love black comedy, and once I’d hit on this particular disgruntled but stoical voice, I was away. As the story is set in the year 2040 I was able to have some fun with the diary form, using family birthdays (grandmother’s, mother’s, daughter’s, sister’s, niece’s) for some of the date entries; the story’s central character is a woman of thirty, and my own daughter will then be fifty so any daughters she might have would probably be at or nearing child-bearing age (like the story’s heroine). Because of course it’s the next unborn generation which is set to inherit the real problems…
Q: A lighter moment can be found in the story “I’m Sorry But I’ll Have to Let You Go.” How do you decide when to use humor in a story to make a social commentary?
A: The honest answer is, I never decide to use humour—it just comes out that way. It’s how I see things. And, usefully for me, the short story does seem a form particularly well-suited to tragi-comedy. I think that’s partly to do with the speed it goes at as well as its mercurial quality. You’ve heard the definition of farce, that it’s just tragedy speeded up? In the short story you can lurch from farce to misery inside a single sentence.
Q: Again, most of the stories in this collection deal with very real issues between families, lovers, and friends. It’s late in the book when you add in a fantastical element to the story “The Festival of the Immortals,” where long-dead famous writers (Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Virginia Woolf, etc.) speak at a book festival. How did you come up with this idea?
A: Literary festivals are big business now in the UK, appearing to double in number on an annual basis, and all sorts of unlikely writers, from the hermit to the curmudgeon, have had to learn how to smile and speak up and run workshops. I found myself wondering how writers of the past might have performed at such events if called upon to do so…
Mega-star Shakespeare would arrive by helicopter, for example, on a half-promise to give a masterclass on the sonnet; while Coleridge and Mansfield might appear at an event called ‘The Notebook Habit.’ And Jane Austen would doubtless be very sarcastic in interviews if you were to ask her an autobiographical question; she’d probably bite your head off if you quizzed her on what effect she thought being fostered by a wet-nurse had had on her.
Q: Are short story advocates going to lose you to the novel any time soon?
A: One thing the novel can do that the short story struggles with is to show character developing in time. For me, that would be the main temptation offered by the longer form. As I’m older now it stands to reason I might also now be better at this than I would have been at twenty.
I must say, though, that I still find the short story form as flexible and satisfyingly anti-boredom (from the point of view of both writer and reader) as I ever have. It’s quick and light and adrenalized; it can turn on a sixpence. It means I can do something new every time. I like to do something different, formally—shape them differently from each other.
Q: Some writers have words of wisdom and encouragement pinned up above their desk. Do you?
A: Flaubert’s “Faire et se taire.” This translates as “Do your work and keep quiet about it”--though interviews like this one would soon fizzle out if we all took that advice. I like to (mis)translate it as “Shut up and get on with it.”
Praise for Helen Simpson's In-Flight Entertainment:
“Funny, shrewd, alternately wicked and warm. . . . Simpson’s short-story collections are such a pleasure to glide through.”
“All lovers of the short story will recognize this collection as brilliant examples of the genre. . . . A book to savor and think about for a long time.”
—The Washington Times
“Fearless, funny writing shadowed with dread. . . . The hat trick Simpson scores here is to render characters who could have been straw men fully three-dimensional, make organic a debate that might have seemed ginned up, and—most astonishingly—shield the reader, with wryness and sharp observation, from feeling oppressed.”
—The Boston Globe
“Simpson has proven her mastery of a difficult form.”
“Simpson revels in the undomesticated part of domestic life. . . . There's not a moment of preciousness or sentimentality in these stories. It's enough to give everyday life its good name back.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[Simpson’s] dark humor will keep you reading. . . . A wicked take on domesticity. . . . There’s delight . . . in her mood-enhancing drop-ins: lines of poetry, descriptions of paintings, evocations of music—treats you might want more of on your own.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“For anyone who savors the acerbic literary likes of Evelyn Waugh or the Amises, father and son, Helen Simpson is just the ticket. . . . The stories assembled here are filled with crisp observations about mortality, infidelity and the looming apocalypse of climate change. Melancholy subjects, to be sure, and Simpson accords them their emotional weight; but one suspects that even as the ice caps melt, Simpson's hardy strain of Brit wit might well be wheezing out a rueful quip or two.”
“Simpson’s writing is spare and intentional; you never doubt you’re in the hands of a master.”
“On first glance the prose appears lilting, unfussy, harmlessly sly. Quickly, though, a steady theme clarifies: that of the planet's self-annihilation.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Simpson suggests that society is too busy with minutiae to deal with critical issues. . . . In-Flight Entertainment provides a bumpy, often jarring flight in which the captain is warning us to prepare for a crash.”
“Short and sharp, the latest stories from the award-winning British author are as pointed as ever.”
“These 13 new stories showcase the work of one of the finest contemporary writers in the form . . . If there’s a flaw to be found in Simpson’s latest collection of stories, it’s that they’re so clever they can distract readers from the characters as they admire the author’s technique. Simpson’s prose is crisp, her insights unsparing, her passions transparent.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Simpson’s wit, and her insight into birth, mortality, marriage and families, certainly mark her out as a writer whose ambition is both constrained and enhanced by choosing this most modest of fictional forms. There are other female writers today who work this territory in novels . . . but Simpson's art is more refined for being so seemingly effortless, unforced and entertaining.”
“A new collection from one of our finest exponents of the form. . . . She merits comparison with Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro. Why read it? Because she’s the real deal.”
“The appearance of another book of short stories by Helen Simpson always causes the heart to lift and this year’s In-Flight Entertainment gave me particular pleasure. Its elegant slenderness contains more subtle intelligence and emotional truth than many a bloated novel.”
—Anne Chisholm, Sunday Telegraph
“In-Flight Entertainment is quite delectable, confirming Simpson as the queen of the comic short story.”
—David Robson, Sunday Telegraph
“It is a blissful relief to turn to the coolness and clarity of Helen Simpson. . . . Simpson is, to my mind, the best short story writer now working in English.”
—Ed Crooks, Financial Times
“Simpson’s gifts are a lyrical vocabulary, an authoritative form, a special funny-sad quality and a subtlety of understanding. Add in political argument, and she is a key voice for our time.”
—Margaret Reynolds, The Times
“Wickedly funny and painfully true. . . . Dangerously close to perfection.”
—Kate Saunders, The Times
“Superbly crafted morality tales, such being Simpson's speciality. . . . [Simpson’s] stories, like the best stories, give the impression of being the last word on the subject, even if, or especially if, that word is enigmatic and open-ended. She ends her stories beautifully, and never quite the same way twice.”
“Very black comedy. . . . Simpson is a wry, humane and brilliant observer of our peculiar condition.”
1. What would you say are the main themes of these stories? Which stories best explore those themes?
2. What traits do many of the characters share? Which character(s) would you like to spend more time with?
3. In general, what is Simpson’s attitude toward her male characters? Does she treat them differently than the females?
4. In the title story, Jeremy says to Alan, “‘I don’t care what you do.’” . . . “‘I don’t care about you. You don’t care about me. We don’t care about him.’ He gestured in the direction of the dead man. ‘We all know how to put ourselves first, and that’s what makes the world go round.’” (page 16) What do you think Jeremy—or Simpson—would prefer Alan to do?
5. By the end of the story, how has the flight affected Alan?
6. In “Squirrel,” how does Simpson use Henry VIII to make a point?
7. What’s the moral of “I’m Sorry but I’ll Have to Let You Go”?
8. In “Scan,” the protagonist considers her existence: “What about before you were born, though; before you were conceived? Well, you can’t remember it so it can’t have been too bad, she told herself; presumably it will be the same after you’ve died. The trouble with this idea was, before you’ve been born you’ve not been you; but once you’ve been alive you definitely have been you; and the idea of the extinction of the you that has definitely existed is quite different from the idea of your nonexistence before you did exist.” (page 44) Where will this thinking lead her?
9. How does Simpson use first-person narration in “Ahead of the Pack” for a humorous effect?
10. Why is Patrick hearing his daughter’s thoughts in “Sorry?”? Is he really hearing them, or is something else going on?
11. Several of Simpson’s characters, like the narrator of “The Tipping Point,” are commitmentphobes. What connection does Simpson make between fear of commitment and global warming?
12. What exactly is the tipping point in that story?
13. In “Geography Boy,” how does the apocalyptic thinking of the Middle Ages relate to current thinking on climate change?
14. Ultimately, what do you think will happen to Adele and Brendan? Will they stay together?
15. Other than their choice of television programming, what connects the people in the three rooms in “Channel 17”?
16. Whose story is the narrator really outlining in “Homework”? Is it what she wishes were true or just a flight of fancy?
17. The tone of “The Festival of the Immortals” is quite different from the stories that came before it. What does it have in common with them?
18. How likely do you think it is that events similar to those in “Diary of an Interesting Year” will come to pass? Do you think Simpson believes they might?
19. After having read the somewhat dire stories that led up to it, what did you make of the optimism of “Charm for a Friend with a Lump”?