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Written by Helen SimpsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Helen Simpson

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On Sale: February 21, 2012
Pages: 176 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95763-4
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A new collection of stories—dazzling, poignant, wickedly funny, and highly addictive—by the internationally acclaimed writer whose work The Times (London) calls “dangerously close to perfection.” These thirteen stories brilliantly focus on aspects of contemporary living and unerringly capture a generation, a type, a social class, a pattern of behavior. They give us the small detail that reveals large secrets and summons up the inner stresses of our lives (“It is a blissful relief to turn to the coolness and clarity of Helen Simpson . . . She is, to my mind, the best short story writer now working in English” —Ed Crooks, Financial Times). Whether her subject is single women or wives in stages of midlife-ery, marriage or motherhood, youth, young love, homework, or history, Simpson writes near to the bone and close to the heart.
 
In one story, a squirrel trapped under a dustbin lid in the back garden vanishes, and a woman’s marriage is revealed in the process . . . In another, a young woman on her way for an MRI reflects on new love, electromagnetism, and Sherlock Holmes, and afterward goes to a museum and finds herself wanting to escape into one of the paintings.
 
And in the title story, two men on a flight from London to Chicago—one an elderly scientist, the other a businessman upgraded to first class—discuss climate change and what flying is doing to “our shrunken planet,” this while the “in-flight entertainment” shows the crop-duster scene from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. When a passenger in the seat across the aisle suddenly becomes ill and dies, the plane is forced to land in Goose Bay, Labrador, to the utter frustration of the two men. In the story’s moment of reckoning, one of the men, furious at the delay, says to the other, “I don’t care about you. You don’t care about me. We don’t care about him [the deceased passenger]. We all know how to put ourselves first, and that’s what makes the world go round.”
 
These darkly comic, brave, and, says The Guardian, “deeply unsentimental” stories brilliantly evoke life’s truest sensations—love, pain, joy, and grief—and give us, with precision and complex economy, a shrewd and painfully true glimpse into our dizzying 3-D age.

Excerpt

Diary of an Interesting Year

12TH FEBRUARY 2040

My thirtieth birthday. G gave me this little spiralbacked notebook and a Biro. It’s a good present, hardly any rust on the spiral and no water damage to the paper. I’m going to start a diary. I’ll keep my handwriting tiny to make the paper go further.

15TH FEBRUARY 2040

G is really getting me down. He’s in his element. They should carve it on his tombstone—“I Was Right.”


23RD FEBRUARY 2040

Glad we don’t live in London. The Hatchwells have got cousins staying with them, they trekked up from Peckham (three days). Went round this afternoon and they were saying the thing that fi nally drove them out was the sewage system— when the drains backed up it overflowed everywhere. They said the smell was unbelievable, the streets were swimming in it, and of course the hospitals are down so there’s nothing to be done about the cholera. Didn’t get too close to them in case they were carrying it. They lost their two sons like that last year.

“You see,” G said to me on the way home, “capitalism cared more about its children as accessories and demonstrations of earning power than for their future.”

“Oh shut up,” I said.

2ND MARCH 2040

Can’t sleep. I’m writing this instead of staring at the ceiling. There’s a mosquito in the room, I can hear it whining close to my ear. Very humid, air like fi lthy soup, plus we’re supposed to wear our face masks in bed too but I was running with sweat so I ripped mine off just now. Got up and looked at myself in the mirror on the landing— ribs like a fence, hair in greasy rats’ tails. Yesterday the rats in the kitchen were busy gnawing away at the bread bin—they didn’t even look up when I came in.


6TH MARCH 2040

Another quarrel with G. OK, yes, he was right, but why crow about it? That’s what you get when you marry your professor from Uni— wall-to-wall pontificating from an older man. “I saw it coming—any fool could see it coming especially after the Big Melt,” he brags. “Thresholds crossed, cascade effect, hopelessly optimistic to assume we had till 2060, blahdy blahdy blah, the plutonomy as lemming, democracy’s massive own goal.” No wonder we haven’t got any friends.

He cheered when rationing came in. He’s the one who volunteered fi rst as car- share warden for our road: one piddling little Peugeot for the entire road. He gets a real kick out of the camaraderie round the standpipe.

—I’ll swap my big tin of chickpeas for your little tin of sardines.

—No, no, my sardines are protein.

—Chickpeas are protein too, plus they fill you up more. Anyway, I thought you still had some tuna.

—No, I swapped that with Astrid Huggins for a tin of tomato soup.

Really sick of bartering, but hard to know how to earn money since the Internet went down. “Also, money’s no use unless you’ve got shedloads of it,” as I said to him in bed last night, “The top layer hanging on inside their plastic bubbles of fi ltered air while the rest of us shuffl e round with goiters and tumors and bits of old sheet tied over our mouths. Plus, we’re soaking wet the whole time. We’ve given up on umbrellas, we just go round permanently drenched.” I only stopped ranting when I heard a snore and clocked he was asleep.


8TH APRIL 2040

Boring morning washing out rags. No wood for hot water, so had to use ashes and lye again. Hands very sore even though I put plastic bags over them. Did the face masks fi rst, then the rags from my period. Took forever. At least I haven’t got to do diapers like Lexi and Esme, that would send me right over the edge.


27TH APRIL 2040

Just back from Maia’s. Seven months. She’s very frightened. I don’t blame her. She tried to make me promise I’d take care of the baby if anything happens to her. I havered (mostly at the thought of coming between her and that throwback Martin— she’d got a new black eye, I didn’t ask). I suppose there’s no harm in promising if it makes her feel better. After all it wouldn’t exactly be taking on a responsibility— I give a new
baby three months max in these conditions. Diarrhea, basically.


14TH MAY 2040

Can’t sleep. Bites itching, trying not to scratch. Heavy thumps and squeaks just above, in the ceiling. Think of something nice. Soap and hot water. Fresh air. Condoms! Sick of being permanently on knife edge re pregnancy.

Start again. Wandering round a supermarket—warm, gorgeously lit— corridors of open fridges full of tiger prawns and fi let mignon. Gliding off down the fast lane in a sports car, stopping to fi ll up with ten gallons of gas. Online, booking tickets for The Mousetrap, click, ordering a case of wine, click, a holiday home, click, a pair of patent leather boots, click, a gap year, click. I go to iTunes and download The Marriage of Figaro, then I chat face-to-face in real time with G’s parents in Sydney. No, don’t think about what happened to them. Horrible. Go to sleep.


21ST MAY 2040

Another row with G. He blew my second candle out, he said one was enough. It wasn’t though, I couldn’t see to read anymore. He drives me mad—it’s like living with a policeman. It always was, even before the Collapse. “The earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed” was his favorite. Nobody likes being labeled greedy. I called him Killjoy and he didn’t like that. “Every one of us takes about twenty-five thousand breaths a day,” he told me. “Each breath removes oxygen from the atmosphere and replaces it with carbon dioxide.” Well, pardon me for breathing! What was I supposed to do— turn into a tree?


6TH JUNE 2040

Went round to the Lumleys for the news last night. Whole road there squashed into front room, straining to listen to radio— batteries very low (no new ones in the last govt delivery). Big news though— compulsory billeting next week. The Shorthouses were up in arms, Kai shouting and red in the face, Lexi in tears. “You work all your life” etc., etc. What planet is he on. None of us too keen, but nothing to be done about it. When we got back, G checked our stash of tins under the bedroom floorboards. A big rat shot out and I screamed my head off. G held me till I stopped crying then we had sex. Woke in the night and prayed not to be pregnant, though God knows who I was praying to.


12TH JUNE 2040

Visited Maia this afternoon. She was in bed, her legs have swollen up like balloons. On at me again to promise about the baby and this time I said yes. She said Astrid Huggins was going to help her when it started—Astrid was a nurse once, apparently, not really the hands-on sort but better than nothing. Nobody else on the road will have a clue what to do now we can’t Google it. “All I remember from old fi lms is that you’re supposed to boil a kettle,” I said. We started to laugh, we got a bit hysterical. Knuckledragger Martin put his head round the door and growled at us to shut it.


1ST JULY 2040

First billet arrived today by army truck. We’ve got a Spanish group of eight including one old lady, her daughter and twin toddler grandsons (all pretty feral), plus four unsmiling men of fighting age. A bit much since we only have two bedrooms. G and I tried to show them round but they ignored us, the grandmother bagged our bedroom straight off. We’re under the kitchen table tonight. I might try to sleep on top of it because of the rats. We couldn’t think of anything to say— the only Spanish we could remember was muchas gracias, and as G said, we’re certainly not saying that.


2ND JULY 2040

Fell off the table in my sleep. Bashed my elbow. Covered in bruises.


3RD JULY 2040

G depressed. The four Spaniards are bigger than him, and he’s worried that the biggest one, Miguel, has his eye on me (with reason, I have to say).


4TH JULY 2040

G depressed. The grandmother found our tins under the fl oorboards and all but danced a flamenco. Miguel punched G when he tried to reclaim a tin of sardines and since then his nose won’t stop bleeding.

6TH JULY 2040

Last night under the table G came up with a plan. He thinks we should head north. Now that this lot is in the flat and a new group from Tehran promised next week, we might as well cut and run. Scotland’s heaving, everyone else has already had the same idea, so he thinks we should get on one of the ferries to Stavanger then aim for Russia.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Where would we stay?”

“I’ve got the pop- up tent packed in a rucksack behind the shed,” he said, “plus our sleeping bags and my windup radio.”

“Camping in the mud,” I said.

“Look on the bright side,” he said. “We have a huge mortgage and we’re just going to walk away from it.”

“Oh, shut up,” I said.


17TH JULY 2040

Maia died yesterday. It was horrible. The baby got stuck two weeks ago, it died inside her. Astrid Huggins was useless, she didn’t have a clue. Martin started waving his Swiss penknife round on the second day and yelling about a cesarean, he had to be dragged off her. He’s at our place now drinking the last of our precious brandy with the Spaniards. That’s it. We’ve got to go. Now, says G. Yes.


1ST AUGUST 2040
Somewhere in Shropshire, or possibly Cheshire. We’re staying off the beaten track. Heavy rain. This notebook’s pages have gone all wavy. At least the Biro doesn’t run. I’m lying inside the tent now, G is out foraging. We got away in the middle of the night. G slung our two rucksacks across the bike. We took turns to wheel it, then on the fourth morning we woke up and looked outside the tent fl ap and it was gone even though we’d covered it with leaves the night before.

“Could be worse,” said G. “We could have had our throats cut while we slept.”

“Oh, shut up,” I said.

3RD AUGUST 2040

Rivers and streams all toxic— fertilizers, typhoid etc. So, we’re following G’s DIY system. Dip cooking pot into stream or river. Add three drops of bleach. Boil up on camping stove with T-shirt stretched over cooking pot. Only moisture squeezed from the T-shirt is safe to drink; nothing else. “You’re joking,” I said when G first showed me how to do this. But no.


9TH AUGUST 2040

Radio news in muddy sleeping bags— skeleton govt obviously struggling, they keep playing the Enigma Variations. Last night they announced the end of fuel for civilian use and the compulsory disabling of all remaining civilian cars. As from now we must all stay at home, they said, and not travel without permission. There’s talk of martial law. We’re going cross-country as much as possible— less chance of being arrested or mugged— trying to cover ten miles a day but the weather slows us down. Torrential rain, often horizontal in gusting winds.


16TH AUGUST 2040

Rare dry afternoon. Black lace clouds over yellow sky. Brown grass, frowsty gray mold, fungal frills. Dead trees come crashing down without warning— one nearly got us today, it made us jump. G was hoping we’d find stuff growing in the fields, but all the farmland round here is surrounded by razor wire and armed guards. He says he knows how to grow vegetables from his allotment days, but so what. They take too long. We’re hungry now, we can’t wait till March for some old carrots to get ripe.


22ND AUGUST 2040

G broke a front crown cracking a beechnut, there’s a black hole and he whistles when he talks. “Damsons, blackberries, young green nettles for soup,” he said at the start of all this, smacking his lips. He’s not so keen now. No damsons or blackberries, of course— only chickweed and ivy.

He's just caught a lame squirrel so I suppose I'll have to do something with it. No creatures left except squirrels, rats and pigeons, unless you count the insects. The news says they’re full of protein, you’re meant to grind them into a paste, but so far we haven’t been able to face that.


24TH AUGUST 2040

We met a pig this morning. It was a bit thin for a pig, and it didn’t look well. G said, “Quick! We’ve got to kill it.”

“Why?” I said. “How?”

“With a knife,” he said. “Bacon. Sausages.”

I pointed out that even if we managed to stab it to death with our old kitchen knife, which looked unlikely, we wouldn’t be able just to open it up and find bacon and sausages inside.

“Milk, then!” said G wildly. “It’s a mammal, isn’t it?”

Meanwhile the pig walked off.


25TH AUGUST 2040

Ravenous. We’ve both got streaming colds. Jumping with fleas, itching like crazy. Weeping sores on hands and faces— the news says, unfortunate side effects from cloud seeding. What with all this and his toothache (back molar, swollen jaw) and the malaria, G is in a bad way.


27TH AUGUST 2040

Found a dead hedgehog. Tried to peel off its spines and barbecue it over the last briquette. Disgusting. Both sick as dogs. Why did I use to moan about the barter system? Foraging is MUCH MUCH worse.


29TH AUGUST 2040

Dreamed of Maia and the penknife and woke up crying. G held me in his shaky arms and talked about Russia, how it’s the new land of milk and honey since the Big Melt. “Some really good farming opportunities opening up in Siberia,” he said through chattering teeth. “We’re like in The Three Sisters,” I said. “ ‘If only we could get to Moscow.’ Do you remember that production at the National? We walked by the river afterward, we stood and listened to Big Ben chime midnight.” Hugged each other and carried on like this until sleep came.


31ST AUGUST 2040

G woke up crying. I held him and hushed him and asked what was the matter. “I wish I had a gun,” he said.


15TH SEPTEMBER 2040

Can’t believe this notebook was still at the bottom of the rucksack. And the Biro. Murderer wasn’t interested in them. He’s turned everything else inside out (including me). G didn't have a gun. This one has a gun.
Helen Simpson|Author Q&A

About Helen Simpson

Helen Simpson - In-Flight Entertainment

Photo © Derek Thompson

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. 

Author Q&A

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

Praise

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.”
Entertainment Weekly
 
“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.”
Booklist 

“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.”
—NPR
 
“Simpson’s writing is spare and intentional; you never doubt you’re in the hands of a master.”
Ploughshares
 
“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.”
Houston Chronicle 
 
“Short and sharp, the latest stories from the award-winning British author are as pointed as ever.”
Kirkus Reviews 
 
“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.”
New Statesman
 
“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.”
Tatler
 
“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.”
The Guardian  
 
“Very black comedy. . . . Simpson is a wry, humane and brilliant observer of our peculiar condition.”
The Independent  

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of In-Flight Entertainment, the wry, funny, and incisive new collection of stories by Helen Simpson.

About the Guide

The appearance of another book of short stories by Helen Simpson always causes the heart to lift. In-Flight Entertainment contains more subtle intelligence and emotional truth than many a bloated novel.” — The Sunday Telegraph (U.K.)
 
A new collection of stories—dazzling, poignant, wickedly funny, and highly addictive—by the internationally acclaimed writer whose work The Times (London) calls “dangerously close to perfection.”
 
Whether her subject is single women or wives in stages of midlife, marriage or motherhood, youth, young love, homework, or history, Simpson writes near to the bone and close to the heart. These thirteen stories brilliantly focus on aspects of contemporary living and unerringly capture a generation, a type, a social class, a pattern of behavior. They give us the small details that reveal large secrets and summon up the inner stresses of our lives (“It is a blissful relief to turn to the coolness and clarity of Helen Simpson. . . . She is, to my mind, the best short story writer now working in English.” —Ed Crooks, Financial Times)

About the Author

Helen Simpson is the author of five 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. She is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Discussion Guides

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”?

Suggested Readings

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro; Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver; Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel; Birds of America by Lorrie Moore; Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut; A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor; Collected Poems by Philip Larkin.

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