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John Williams…Simpson at full steam is a powerful writer and good company.
—The New York Times Book Review
“For anyone who savors the acerbic literary likes of Evelyn Waugh or the Amises, father and son, Helen Simpson is just the ticket. . . . The stories assembled here are filled with crisp observations about mortality, infidelity and the looming apocalypse of climate change.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR “Fresh Air”
“Each tale unlocks a character’s essence—obsessions, compromises, secrets, disappointments, desires—like the turn of a key in a jewel box.”
—Lisa Shea, ELLE
“Bearing businessmen, mothers, lovers, and marrieds, the tragicomic stories in Helen Simpson’s exactingly crafted In-Flight Entertainment rise with soaring intelligence and killer wit.”
—Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
“Simpson’s writing is spare and intentional; you never doubt that you’re in the hands of a master.”
—Andrew Ladd, Ploughshares Literary Magazine
“Simpson is masterful at plying her craft as a writer. . . . She alarms and terrifies, leaving the reader with thoughts that haunt and linger. . . . Unforgettable imagery.”
—Diane Brandley, New York Journal of Books
“A master of the short form. . . . Funny, wry, wicked, painful . . . Simpson’s stories are the work of an agile artist.”
—Joyce J. Townsend, Library Journal
“Short and sharp, the latest stories from the award-winning British author are as pointed as ever. . .”
“Simpson has proven her mastery of a difficult form.”
“These 13 new stories showcase the work of one of the finest contemporary writers in the form . . . If there’s a flaw to be found in Simpson’s latest collection of stories, it’s that they’re so clever they can distract readers from the characters as they admire the author’s technique. Simpson’s prose is crisp, her insights unsparing, her passions transparent.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred
23RD FEBRUARY 2040
Glad we don’t live in London. The Hatchwells have got cousins staying with them, they trekked up from Peckham (three days). Went round this afternoon and they were saying the thing that fi nally drove them out was the sewage system— when the drains backed up it overflowed everywhere. They said the smell was unbelievable, the streets were swimming in it, and of course the hospitals are down so there’s nothing to be done about the cholera. Didn’t get too close to them in case they were carrying it. They lost their two sons like that last year.
“You see,” G said to me on the way home, “capitalism cared more about its children as accessories and demonstrations of earning power than for their future.”
“Oh shut up,” I said.
2ND MARCH 2040
Can’t sleep. I’m writing this instead of staring at the ceiling. There’s a mosquito in the room, I can hear it whining close to my ear. Very humid, air like fi lthy soup, plus we’re supposed to wear our face masks in bed too but I was running with sweat so I ripped mine off just now. Got up and looked at myself in the mirror on the landing— ribs like a fence, hair in greasy rats’ tails. Yesterday the rats in the kitchen were busy gnawing away at the bread bin—they didn’t even look up when I came in.
6TH MARCH 2040
Another quarrel with G. OK, yes, he was right, but why crow about it? That’s what you get when you marry your professor from Uni— wall-to-wall pontificating from an older man. “I saw it coming—any fool could see it coming especially after the Big Melt,” he brags. “Thresholds crossed, cascade effect, hopelessly optimistic to assume we had till 2060, blahdy blahdy blah, the plutonomy as lemming, democracy’s massive own goal.” No wonder we haven’t got any friends.
He cheered when rationing came in. He’s the one who volunteered fi rst as car- share warden for our road: one piddling little Peugeot for the entire road. He gets a real kick out of the camaraderie round the standpipe.
—I’ll swap my big tin of chickpeas for your little tin of sardines.
—No, no, my sardines are protein.
—Chickpeas are protein too, plus they fill you up more. Anyway, I thought you still had some tuna.
—No, I swapped that with Astrid Huggins for a tin of tomato soup.
Really sick of bartering, but hard to know how to earn money since the Internet went down. “Also, money’s no use unless you’ve got shedloads of it,” as I said to him in bed last night, “The top layer hanging on inside their plastic bubbles of fi ltered air while the rest of us shuffl e round with goiters and tumors and bits of old sheet tied over our mouths. Plus, we’re soaking wet the whole time. We’ve given up on umbrellas, we just go round permanently drenched.” I only stopped ranting when I heard a snore and clocked he was asleep.
8TH APRIL 2040
Boring morning washing out rags. No wood for hot water, so had to use ashes and lye again. Hands very sore even though I put plastic bags over them. Did the face masks fi rst, then the rags from my period. Took forever. At least I haven’t got to do diapers like Lexi and Esme, that would send me right over the edge.
27TH APRIL 2040
Just back from Maia’s. Seven months. She’s very frightened. I don’t blame her. She tried to make me promise I’d take care of the baby if anything happens to her. I havered (mostly at the thought of coming between her and that throwback Martin— she’d got a new black eye, I didn’t ask). I suppose there’s no harm in promising if it makes her feel better. After all it wouldn’t exactly be taking on a responsibility— I give a new baby three months max in these conditions. Diarrhea, basically.
14TH MAY 2040
Can’t sleep. Bites itching, trying not to scratch. Heavy thumps and squeaks just above, in the ceiling. Think of something nice. Soap and hot water. Fresh air. Condoms! Sick of being permanently on knife edge re pregnancy.
Start again. Wandering round a supermarket—warm, gorgeously lit— corridors of open fridges full of tiger prawns and fi let mignon. Gliding off down the fast lane in a sports car, stopping to fi ll up with ten gallons of gas. Online, booking tickets for The Mousetrap, click, ordering a case of wine, click, a holiday home, click, a pair of patent leather boots, click, a gap year, click. I go to iTunes and download The Marriage of Figaro, then I chat face-to-face in real time with G’s parents in Sydney. No, don’t think about what happened to them. Horrible. Go to sleep.
21ST MAY 2040
Another row with G. He blew my second candle out, he said one was enough. It wasn’t though, I couldn’t see to read anymore. He drives me mad—it’s like living with a policeman. It always was, even before the Collapse. “The earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed” was his favorite. Nobody likes being labeled greedy. I called him Killjoy and he didn’t like that. “Every one of us takes about twenty-five thousand breaths a day,” he told me. “Each breath removes oxygen from the atmosphere and replaces it with carbon dioxide.” Well, pardon me for breathing! What was I supposed to do— turn into a tree?
6TH JUNE 2040
Went round to the Lumleys for the news last night. Whole road there squashed into front room, straining to listen to radio— batteries very low (no new ones in the last govt delivery). Big news though— compulsory billeting next week. The Shorthouses were up in arms, Kai shouting and red in the face, Lexi in tears. “You work all your life” etc., etc. What planet is he on. None of us too keen, but nothing to be done about it. When we got back, G checked our stash of tins under the bedroom floorboards. A big rat shot out and I screamed my head off. G held me till I stopped crying then we had sex. Woke in the night and prayed not to be pregnant, though God knows who I was praying to.
12TH JUNE 2040
Visited Maia this afternoon. She was in bed, her legs have swollen up like balloons. On at me again to promise about the baby and this time I said yes. She said Astrid Huggins was going to help her when it started—Astrid was a nurse once, apparently, not really the hands-on sort but better than nothing. Nobody else on the road will have a clue what to do now we can’t Google it. “All I remember from old fi lms is that you’re supposed to boil a kettle,” I said. We started to laugh, we got a bit hysterical. Knuckledragger Martin put his head round the door and growled at us to shut it.
1ST JULY 2040
First billet arrived today by army truck. We’ve got a Spanish group of eight including one old lady, her daughter and twin toddler grandsons (all pretty feral), plus four unsmiling men of fighting age. A bit much since we only have two bedrooms. G and I tried to show them round but they ignored us, the grandmother bagged our bedroom straight off. We’re under the kitchen table tonight. I might try to sleep on top of it because of the rats. We couldn’t think of anything to say— the only Spanish we could remember was muchas gracias, and as G said, we’re certainly not saying that.
2ND JULY 2040
Fell off the table in my sleep. Bashed my elbow. Covered in bruises.
3RD JULY 2040
G depressed. The four Spaniards are bigger than him, and he’s worried that the biggest one, Miguel, has his eye on me (with reason, I have to say).
4TH JULY 2040
G depressed. The grandmother found our tins under the fl oorboards and all but danced a flamenco. Miguel punched G when he tried to reclaim a tin of sardines and since then his nose won’t stop bleeding.
6TH JULY 2040
Last night under the table G came up with a plan. He thinks we should head north. Now that this lot is in the flat and a new group from Tehran promised next week, we might as well cut and run. Scotland’s heaving, everyone else has already had the same idea, so he thinks we should get on one of the ferries to Stavanger then aim for Russia.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Where would we stay?”
“I’ve got the pop- up tent packed in a rucksack behind the shed,” he said, “plus our sleeping bags and my windup radio.”
“Camping in the mud,” I said.
“Look on the bright side,” he said. “We have a huge mortgage and we’re just going to walk away from it.”
“Oh, shut up,” I said.
17TH JULY 2040
Maia died yesterday. It was horrible. The baby got stuck two weeks ago, it died inside her. Astrid Huggins was useless, she didn’t have a clue. Martin started waving his Swiss penknife round on the second day and yelling about a cesarean, he had to be dragged off her. He’s at our place now drinking the last of our precious brandy with the Spaniards. That’s it. We’ve got to go. Now, says G. Yes.
1ST AUGUST 2040
Somewhere in Shropshire, or possibly Cheshire. We’re staying off the beaten track. Heavy rain. This notebook’s pages have gone all wavy. At least the Biro doesn’t run. I’m lying inside the tent now, G is out foraging. We got away in the middle of the night. G slung our two rucksacks across the bike. We took turns to wheel it, then on the fourth morning we woke up and looked outside the tent fl ap and it was gone even though we’d covered it with leaves the night before.
“Could be worse,” said G. “We could have had our throats cut while we slept.”
“Oh, shut up,” I said.
3RD AUGUST 2040
Rivers and streams all toxic— fertilizers, typhoid etc. So, we’re following G’s DIY system. Dip cooking pot into stream or river. Add three drops of bleach. Boil up on camping stove with T-shirt stretched over cooking pot. Only moisture squeezed from the T-shirt is safe to drink; nothing else. “You’re joking,” I said when G first showed me how to do this. But no.
9TH AUGUST 2040
Radio news in muddy sleeping bags— skeleton govt obviously struggling, they keep playing the Enigma Variations. Last night they announced the end of fuel for civilian use and the compulsory disabling of all remaining civilian cars. As from now we must all stay at home, they said, and not travel without permission. There’s talk of martial law. We’re going cross-country as much as possible— less chance of being arrested or mugged— trying to cover ten miles a day but the weather slows us down. Torrential rain, often horizontal in gusting winds.
16TH AUGUST 2040
Rare dry afternoon. Black lace clouds over yellow sky. Brown grass, frowsty gray mold, fungal frills. Dead trees come crashing down without warning— one nearly got us today, it made us jump. G was hoping we’d find stuff growing in the fields, but all the farmland round here is surrounded by razor wire and armed guards. He says he knows how to grow vegetables from his allotment days, but so what. They take too long. We’re hungry now, we can’t wait till March for some old carrots to get ripe.
22ND AUGUST 2040
G broke a front crown cracking a beechnut, there’s a black hole and he whistles when he talks. “Damsons, blackberries, young green nettles for soup,” he said at the start of all this, smacking his lips. He’s not so keen now. No damsons or blackberries, of course— only chickweed and ivy.
He's just caught a lame squirrel so I suppose I'll have to do something with it. No creatures left except squirrels, rats and pigeons, unless you count the insects. The news says they’re full of protein, you’re meant to grind them into a paste, but so far we haven’t been able to face that.
24TH AUGUST 2040
We met a pig this morning. It was a bit thin for a pig, and it didn’t look well. G said, “Quick! We’ve got to kill it.”
“Why?” I said. “How?”
“With a knife,” he said. “Bacon. Sausages.”
I pointed out that even if we managed to stab it to death with our old kitchen knife, which looked unlikely, we wouldn’t be able just to open it up and find bacon and sausages inside.
“Milk, then!” said G wildly. “It’s a mammal, isn’t it?”
Meanwhile the pig walked off.
25TH AUGUST 2040
Ravenous. We’ve both got streaming colds. Jumping with fleas, itching like crazy. Weeping sores on hands and faces— the news says, unfortunate side effects from cloud seeding. What with all this and his toothache (back molar, swollen jaw) and the malaria, G is in a bad way.
27TH AUGUST 2040
Found a dead hedgehog. Tried to peel off its spines and barbecue it over the last briquette. Disgusting. Both sick as dogs. Why did I use to moan about the barter system? Foraging is MUCH MUCH worse.
29TH AUGUST 2040
Dreamed of Maia and the penknife and woke up crying. G held me in his shaky arms and talked about Russia, how it’s the new land of milk and honey since the Big Melt. “Some really good farming opportunities opening up in Siberia,” he said through chattering teeth. “We’re like in The Three Sisters,” I said. “ ‘If only we could get to Moscow.’ Do you remember that production at the National? We walked by the river afterward, we stood and listened to Big Ben chime midnight.” Hugged each other and carried on like this until sleep came.
31ST AUGUST 2040
G woke up crying. I held him and hushed him and asked what was the matter. “I wish I had a gun,” he said.
15TH SEPTEMBER 2040
Can’t believe this notebook was still at the bottom of the rucksack. And the Biro. Murderer wasn’t interested in them. He’s turned everything else inside out (including me). G didn't have a gun. This one has a gun.
1. What would you say are the main themes of these stories? Which stories best explore those themes?
2. What traits do many of the characters share? Which character(s) would you like to spend more time with?
3. In general, what is Simpson’s attitude toward her male characters? Does she treat them differently than the females?
4. In the title story, Jeremy says to Alan, “‘I don’t care what you do.’” . . . “‘I don’t care about you. You don’t care about me. We don’t care about him.’ He gestured in the direction of the dead man. ‘We all know how to put ourselves first, and that’s what makes the world go round.’” (page 16) What do you think Jeremy—or Simpson—would prefer Alan to do?
5. By the end of the story, how has the flight affected Alan?
6. In “Squirrel,” how does Simpson use Henry VIII to make a point?
7. What’s the moral of “I’m Sorry but I’ll Have to Let You Go”?
8. In “Scan,” the protagonist considers her existence: “What about before you were born, though; before you were conceived? Well, you can’t remember it so it can’t have been too bad, she told herself; presumably it will be the same after you’ve died. The trouble with this idea was, before you’ve been born you’ve not been you; but once you’ve been alive you definitely have been you; and the idea of the extinction of the you that has definitely existed is quite different from the idea of your nonexistence before you did exist.” (page 44) Where will this thinking lead her?
9. How does Simpson use first-person narration in “Ahead of the Pack” for a humorous effect?
10. Why is Patrick hearing his daughter’s thoughts in “Sorry?”? Is he really hearing them, or is something else going on?
11. Several of Simpson’s characters, like the narrator of “The Tipping Point,” are commitmentphobes. What connection does Simpson make between fear of commitment and global warming?
12. What exactly is the tipping point in that story?
13. In “Geography Boy,” how does the apocalyptic thinking of the Middle Ages relate to current thinking on climate change?
14. Ultimately, what do you think will happen to Adele and Brendan? Will they stay together?
15. Other than their choice of television programming, what connects the people in the three rooms in “Channel 17”?
16. Whose story is the narrator really outlining in “Homework”? Is it what she wishes were true or just a flight of fancy?
17. The tone of “The Festival of the Immortals” is quite different from the stories that came before it. What does it have in common with them?
18. How likely do you think it is that events similar to those in “Diary of an Interesting Year” will come to pass? Do you think Simpson believes they might?
19. After having read the somewhat dire stories that led up to it, what did you make of the optimism of “Charm for a Friend with a Lump”?
Posted March 7, 2012
I read the reviews and the excerpt and thought, "Aha! Just what I need!" Wrong. The book's title, "In Flight," sums up the over-riding theme of the stories: people in flight from reality, physically running from global warming, mentally running from global warming, running from marriages, running from commitment...well, you get the idea. The depressing arc of the book, however, doesn't make it a "no read." That falls to the lack of depth and poor writing. "Clever" was one of the words Publishers Weekly used to describe Simpson's book. That's not the word I'd chose. Perhaps plodding, or over-blown. It took me three days to read a 109 page book and I ended up feeling like it was a homework assignment. I even wished for some Cliff Notes to help me find the humor one of the reviewers mentioned. (Well, not completely. The bit about the pig in the excerpted story did make me smile.)
Upshot: If you really want to read this, wait for a sale...or borrow it.
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Posted March 5, 2012
If you've ever wondered how writing can be simultaneously dystopian & hilarious, these stories will show how it can be done by a really talented writer. An added bonus is that the collection is compact & won't take forever to finish. It's also environmentally conscious & may make you thin twice before booking your next flight! -- catwak
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Posted June 18, 2012
I wish I could get back the time I spent reading this book. The only good part about it was the stories were short. I kept reading hoping that there was one I could enjoy. No such luck for me.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 22, 2012
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Posted March 8, 2012
Who knows what this book is about? Barnes and Noble never sent it to me. I'm trying to cancel the order but I'm not having any luck. Amazon seems to be a better bet forWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.