The Brits: You've got to hand it to them. The Empire may be long gone, but they still reign supreme when it comes to effortlessly exuding mordant wit. For anyone who savors the acerbic literary likes of Evelyn Waugh or the Amises, father and son, Helen Simpson is just the ticket.
Her latest short-story collection, In-Flight Entertainment, has already been lauded by reviewers across the pond: The Times of London declared that it was "dangerously close to perfection." 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.
The title story, "In-Flight Entertainment," is alone worth the price of this book. In it, a businessman named Alan is riled because his flight to Chicago has been delayed by what he derisively calls "Heathrow nutters," environmentalists protesting airplane carbon emissions. He's somewhat mollified by being upgraded to first class; but, just as he settles in to sip his champagne and watch the old Hitchcock movie North by Northwest, the "old guy across the aisle" begins "making quite a fuss." An announcement then goes out asking if there are any doctors onboard. The brilliance of this story lies in the way Simpson compresses so many worlds into the tiny space of that first-class section. Here's a snippet where Alan is ordering dessert from the flight attendant when suddenly he hears the "whump" of a defibrillator being used on the struggling man nearby:
Alan realized [the flight attendant] had failed to take his pudding order ... Now Cary Grant was climbing up Washington's granite nose. Pudding was the best part of the meal for him. He allowed himself to be distracted by the Mount Rushmore chase sequence for a few minutes, and the next time he looked up he saw the doctor shaking his head and rolling down his sleeves. Did that mean ... ? Apparently it did, because a tartan blanket was being pulled up over what must now be the corpse.
That's only the start of the grousing in first class as the plane is diverted to Goose Bay, Canada. We're all on the same one-way flight to the abyss, Simpson implies here, but many of us, like Alan, are so armored by luxury and our own self-regard that the warning sirens barely penetrate.
"Squirrel" is another triumph of multiple perspectives shrink-wrapped into a small space. A family of three gathers in a garden. The middle-aged mother, named Susan, suffers her teenage daughter's scorn and her husband's bullying. He's occupied trying to kill a squirrel he's trapped under a "dustbin lid." As daughter and father quip about Henry VIII and the various forms of torture appropriate for the furry "prisoner," Susan keeps up an anxious internal monologue, wondering if her husband has caught onto her extramarital affair. Her fate and the cornered squirrel's become drolly, but movingly, entwined.
Sometimes Simpson, herself, wants to take a mental health break and flee from earthly concerns into the realm of fantasy. "The Festival of the Immortals" is a satirical piece about a literary festival featuring only those writers whose work is "out of copyright." (What that means under British law is "dead.") Superstar Shakespeare arrives by helicopter; George Eliot gets tetchy when she's introduced as the author of The Floss on the Mill; and Emily Bronte charms everyone with her frankness about the disease in a round-table discussion entitled "T.B. and Me."
All in good fun, but Simpson's range is best displayed in the more apocalyptically minded pieces here, like "Geography Boy." It's a tale of two British college students, in love, cycling around France and arguing, sometimes pompously, about climate change and activism. The boy and the girl stop at a chateau to tour some famous medieval tapestries, filled with ghastly images of the end of the world. In the final sentences of the story, the quarrelsome lovers call a truce and hold each other as they look up at the night sky. Simpson gives them — and her readers — the gift of a moment's elegiac reprieve:
"They stood in the fathomless dark," Simpson writes, "and stared saucer-eyed beyond the stratosphere into the night, as troupes of boisterous planets wheeled across the blackness all round them."
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