In-Flight Entertainment: Stories - Helen Simpson

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.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.





First off, as I typically do with short story collections, let me do a brief run-down of each of the stories:


#1 "In Flight Entertainment" (title story, obvs) -- Alan is boarding a flight to Chicago when he pleasantly finds he's been upgraded to first class. While on the flight, he gets in a conversation with the man seated across from him, talking most of global warming and carbon emissions, all while another passenger on the flight falls into what appears to be likely fatal illness right behind them. 


#2 "Squirrel" -- Lara, her husband and her daughter are gathered in the kitchen talking about the squirrel problem around the house (her husband has one trapped under a trash can lid as they speak). The conversation drifts to the daughter's school lessons on Henry VIII and the adultery charges he brought against wife Anne Boleyn. The topic secretly has Lara contemplating her own marriage as well as a secret infidelity she hasn't told anyone about. 


#3 "I'm Sorry But I'll Have To Let You Go" -- A 24 year old British man gets an opportunity for career advancement in the United States, decides he's not up for a long-distance relationship so he breaks up with his girlfriend. She doesn't take the news well. 


#4 "Scan" -- A woman is being scanned for a possible brain tumor and while she is in the machine, her thoughts drift everywhere from thoughts on art to mortality to the history and process of X-Ray.


#5 "Ahead Of The Pack" -- The narrator of the story is giving his sales pitch / business plan for an eco-friendly weight loss company


#6 "Sorry?" -- A man who has recently gone deaf in one ear tries out a new hearing aide and discovers that he may be hearing things that are not actually there or at least not audible to anyone else


#7 "The Tipping Point" -- An English / Drama teacher takes on the arguments of an eco-warrior ex


#8 "Geography Boy" -- Brendan is taking his girlfriend Adele on a bicycling tour of Angers, France. They take in the history while Brendan tries his best to convince her to join his group of environmental protestors. 


#9 "Channel 17" -- The story of three different couples (who don't know each other) staying in a hotel in France and how all their stories seem to involve this one bizarre television channel that seems to air nothing except a video of a woman seductively lowering her stockings, then pulling them back up


#10 "Homework" -- A mother is helping her 13 year old son with a homework assignment -- to write about a life changing moment. Between them, they craft a fabricated story about how the boy was changed by his parents' divorce. 


#11 "The Festival Of The Immortals" -- Two long lost friends bump into each other and reconnect at a bookish festival where dead (classic lit.) authors come back to life and offer speeches, seminars and workshops on the craft of writing. 


#12 "Diary Of An Interesting Year" -- It's the year 2040. The air is polluted to the point of everyone needing to wear masks pretty much all the time. Food is super scarce and rationed, many people starving. The barter system is the preffered method of payment over money. For her birthday, our narrator is given an old spiral notebook and still-working pen salvaged from somewhere. She records what happens that year, covering the mundane up to the most grim & graphic topics.  


#13 "Charm For A Friend With A Lump" -- The narrator tries to lift the spirits of a friend battling cancer by asking for her help in designing a garden





* The story "Scan" jumped around with the imagery WAAY too much, to the point where I was picturing some low-budget college art film in my head. Didn't love it. 


* "Diary Of An Interesting Year" reminded me a bit of The Road by Cormac McCarthy -- in fact, there's one bit in this short story about the trees falling and nearly killing people that sounded eerily similar to the same image from The Road (of the trees falling and people fearing death, I mean). I was also a little taken aback at how dark this story got, much more so than any other story in the collection. Sure, the opening scenes are dystopian, so I would expect the descriptions of scarce food, damaged ecology, fight with others for provision but then it takes a turn real hard into murder, rape and abortion!


* As a whole, I felt like Simpson's writing style / ability were solid... can't really say I noticed anything to fault there. It's just that so many of these stories fell SO FLAT. Each story felt like it started with the potential to go quirky and thought-provoking but ended up so bland! Also, the endings -- stupid, unsatisfying endings that just stop suddenly and leave you feeling like your time invested in reading these stories ends up being pretty pointless.


I was a little surprised that so many of the stories ended up having a bit of an eco-fiction lean to them, as it's not really advertised as being a running theme in the book's synopsis. While eco-fiction has become one of my favorite genres to read in recent years, these stories bordered on preachy at times. I feel that it's unlikely that any of these stories will stick with me long-term, but of the tales gathered here, I'd say the ones that stood out most to me personally were "Geography Boy", "The Festival Of The Immortals", "Diary Of An Interesting Year" and "Charm For A Friend With A Lump". These struck me as having the most compelling characters and felt the most thought-out works in the bunch.