Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: In-Flight Entertainment: Stories

In-Flight Entertainment: Stories
Helen Simpson

Please make sure that all of your personal belongings are stored in the overhead compartments or under the seat in front of you.

Make sure that all tray tables are secured in their upright positions.

Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night. –Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in All About Eve

If you plan to read Helen Simpson’s latest short story collection, In-Flight Entertainment, fasten your seatbelt indeed. The title story involves an actual plane flight to Chicago that begins with a four hour delay on the tarmac at Heathrow. The disgruntled main character, Alan, begins to feel better once he is bumped up to first class and can imbibe champagne from a real glass and enjoy legroom. Soon turbulence sets in as he gets into an argument with a fellow passenger (a scientist) over global warming and climate change. Next, another nearby passenger, an octogenarian, starts coughing and spitting and then dies. Tensions ratchet up even tighter with a further delay, an unscheduled emergency landing, a late arrival, and a missed business presentation. The author’s signature economic writing offers not one spare word and confirms her reputation as one of our most talented contemporary short story masters.

The remaining stories do not involve air travel, but present flight metaphorically as a journey through life from birth to death, health to illness, loving partnerships to break-ups. The life cycle of the earth as its health begins to decline is present again and even apocalypse and dystopia are occasional themes. Two of the stories read more like essays than fiction shorts.

Those familiar with Simpson’s previous short fiction will observe a noticeable shift away from her usual treatments of domestic fiction to a more global scope, yet some domestic scenarios are present. In “Squirrel” a bored housewife feels like the varmint her husband has trapped in their garden. “Homework” depicts a young student who whines to his mother, “I can’t do it!” when sitting at the kitchen table procrastinating on an essay assignment on “An Event That Changed Your Life.” The mother wants her son to do this independently, but after more whining she finally gives up and helps him compose a false and outlandish tale sure to embarrass the entire family and probably the teacher.

Be careful when opening the overhead compartments as some items may have shifted during the flight.

Whether you read these 13 stories on a plane or in the comfort of your armchair, you will not need to worry about the overhead compartments. The shifting will happen inside your head.

Submitted by David Blake
Fiction Department
Central Library

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