In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson

“Helen Simpson is a key voice for our time.” —The Times

Read “Diary of an Interesting Year” from the collection

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.

Attention book clubs: download the reading group guide

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

From our Q&A with the author:

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.

(…read the rest)