If you dare to enter the murky world of short story criticism, you are likely to find yourself swamped by metaphors—florid, emotive, and frequently confusing images that writers and critics since Edgar Allan Poe have used to describe and define the genre. A story is, variously, a love affair, a carefully-aimed arrow, a knock-out punch in a boxing match. It’s an infallible machine, an imploding universe, an Impressionist painting. And then—if that wasn’t enough—the short story is itself a metaphor: much like flash photography, the form reproduces the jolting, disjunctive experience of life in the modern metropolis, as theorists like Walter Benjamin have it.
Picking up a copy of Cockfosters, Helen Simpson’s latest collection of short stories, this last connection between story and city is pretty hard to ignore. The title, set on the jacket in a block of Piccadilly-line blue, immediately announces the stories’ direct concern with contemporary life in the capital. Here, as in her five previous collections, Simpson sets out a series of aggressively topical portraits of Londoners, offering her readers fleeting but vivid glimpses of the kind of person we might expect to see passing us on the tube, sitting in the pub, wandering into those dubious alternative medicine stores. Among her subjects are the University of London professor seeking to stave off the aches and pains of menopause through acupuncture appointments; the city lawyer, unsuccessfully giving career guidance to a friend’s son, who, in turn, would rather talk about interrailing; the Wormwood Scrubs inmate who fakes the symptoms of a heart attack for a ‘holiday’ from prison life, in the ‘Costa Brava’ of a hospital ward. Each of these characters bursts into view for a few pages before vanishing, leaving us with that uniquely urban sensation of ‘distant intimacy,’ as the narrator of ‘Arizona’ puts it. These are stories written from, and for, the culture of the city, in which we all live in the interstices of each other’s lives.
Yet while the stories are decidedly local in their setting, they are not so in their scope. Across the collection, Simpson tackles issues surrounding gender roles, international politics and literary meaning. But her big theme here is time and transience, particularly as these make themselves felt with the onset of middle age—and Simpson never allows her readers or her characters to forget about that pesky ticking clock. It is marked on the page by the digits that slowly change on a bedside alarm in ‘Erewhon,’ the days on a holiday itinerary that are checked off one by one in ‘Berlin,’ and the gradually dwindling number of stops until the train terminus is reached in ‘Cockfosters’. Of course, this isn’t anything new: the Inexorable Passage of Time has been the great literary bugbear since Classical Antiquity. But there is something fresh about Simpson’s handling of the theme, the inventive range of her characters’ responses to the reality of ageing.
There’s the city lawyer in ‘Cheapside,’ who refuses to concede that he is getting old, ill, and out of touch. He ignores the warning signs of an age-induced heart attack, and resolves to continue working hellish hours in order to support the spending habits of his youthful second wife. As he internally rehearses his mantra that ‘it’s to do with stamina and combative strength,’ Simpson points to the unbridgeable gap between the ageing lawyer and his vision of himself as courageous youthful hero, through the unresponsiveness of the teenage mentee that he has taken to lunch. The narrator of ‘Kythera’ is, by contrast, keenly aware of the distance between herself and the younger generations: she knows that she has become her now fully-grown daughter’s ‘own memento mori in bulging middle-aged shoes’. She is, however, able to find relief through an imaginative escape into the past as she bakes her daughter’s birthday cake. The ritual of preparing ‘the one I always make’ prompts the narrator to relive a gorgeous selection of intimate domestic scenes from her life with her ‘darling girl.’ The women in the title story, though, do it best: they ‘emerge blinking into the sunlight’ of life after motherhood, ready to embrace their newfound freedom. The story charts their trip—both literal and symbolic—out to the end of the Piccadilly line to retrieve a pair of glasses. They arrive, only to then head back into town, not about to give up yet.
But even whilst Simpson is remarkably generous in her handling of her characters, the lasting impression left by the collection is that it is, at heart, a bunch of portraits of decidedly average people, who have been confronted with decidedly average problems. Cockfosters is populated by figures who are almost uniformly middle-class, middle-aged, and, ultimately, fairly mediocre. Simpson’s ‘pitch perfect ear for dialogue’ seems to pick up only the register of bourgeois Britain; and, when she reaches for a lyrical note, the writing starts to feel uncomfortably cluttered, stuffy, false. Though the collection captures something of the capital and its culture, it misses out on its dynamism, its diversity, that weirdness that makes it so addictive.
By Chloe Currens
Cockfosters by Helen Simpson, Vintage, £15.99