Stories of contemporary Englishwomen who are “just barely there”
In the Driver’s Seat: Stories. By Helen Simpson. Knopf, 192 pp., $22.
By Janice Harayda
“The short story today seems to be caught up in a competition of subtlety,” the critic Anatole Broyard wrote in the 1970s. “Who can weave a web of the thinnest materials?” Broyard observed that in many stories, even the characters – the one thing you can’t eliminate – “are just barely there.” He was talking about the late English writer Elizabeth Taylor, but you could say the same of Helen Simpson, her somewhat less consistent countrywoman.
Simpson is thoughtful and intelligent, yet some of the 11 stories in her new collection are little more than extended anecdotes. She typically writes about contemporary Englishwomen who are old enough to have come up against some of their physical or emotional limits, yet young enough to think they can solve their problems with talk. They change, if they do so at all, only when jolted out of their passivity by events they didn’t cause – a break-in, an outbreak of cancer among friends, the loss of a leg in a freak bus accident.
A woman who didn’t attend her married lover’s funeral finds relief from her buried grief when a man from a do-it-yourself store treats her kindly in “The Door,” a story reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” A wife stands by her philandering husband during a lung-cancer scare in “If I’m Spared” and then, when he turns out to have tuberculosis instead, shows no rage or even concern that he might have infected her. An experienced mother tries to convince herself that her comforting words have helped an emotionally abused child at a swimming pool in “The Year’s Midnight,” a story that is almost all talk with whiff of instruction about it.
At times Simpson suggests what she can do at her best. In “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life” a woman who draws blood for a living projects her fears about the war in Iraq onto her lover — or perhaps projects her fears about her lover onto the war – with predictably disastrous results. Simpson makes interesting connections by juxtaposing such things as the Arsenal soccer team, Saddam Hussein’s brutality and the anticoagulant drug warfarin. But by the end of the story, talk has again gained the upper hand over the action that would have shown the point of these details.
Simpson tells an altogether different sort of tale in “The Green Room,” which involves an elf who materializes in the home of a woman who visits a Web site called Festive Life Coach. This amusing fable resembles a parody of “A Christmas Carol” with a 21st century “life coach” in the role of Marley’s Ghost. (“This is Pessimism,” the elf says. “And here, look, here comes its cousin Procrastination.”) The story is diverting, but could have been commissioned for a newspaper holiday supplement.
The best story is “Constitutional,” the title for the English edition of this collection. This jewel takes the form of an interior monologue that gives a cross-section of the entire life of a science teacher as she walks around what appears to be Hampstead Heath. Witty, insightful and beautifully structured, “Constitutional” shows us a woman who is, on every line, fully present and made of material sturdy enough to support all that her creator has to say about her.
Best lines: “I’m finding more and more when I meet new people that, within minutes of saying hello, they’re laying themselves out in front of me like scientific diagrams that they then explain, complex specimens, analyzed and summed up in their own words. They talk about their pasts in great detail, they tell me their stories, and then – this is what passes for intimacy now – they ask me to tell them mine. I have tried. But I can’t. It seems cooked up, that sort of story. And how could it be more than the current version? It makes me feel, No, that’s not it and that’s not it as soon as I’ve said something.” – The narrator of “Constitutional”
Worst lines: “You never talk to me … We only ever watch television and go to bed … But what do you feel?” – Comments the title character of “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life” makes to her lover
Reading group guide: So far the publisher hasn’t posted one on its site www.randomhouse.com. I was going to post a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the book, but the collection seems too skimpy to have a strong appeal for most American book clubs.
Published: May 2007
Furthermore: Simpson has a short story that’s not included in In the Driver’s Seat, “Homework,” in the June 19, 2007, issue of The New Yorker. She also wrote the collections Dear George and Four Bare Legs in a Bed, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and the novel Flesh and Grass.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.