Helen Simpson is not a prolific writer; six slim collections of short stories in 25 years, each timed quinquennially with what seems, at least retrospectively, like impeccable forward planning. In fact, time, we shall see, is what her career so far has been about. She has also heroically resisted the pressure —and there must have been a significant one, at least towards the beginning — to move on from the short form and deliver a novel, as if the short story were not an entirely different genre but just a warming-up exercise before the heavyweight training session of the novel.
Cockfosters is a slender volume, all of 140 pages, each of its nine stories named after a place (‘Kentish Town’, ‘Kythera’, ‘Arizona’, ‘Moscow’ etc.), which can be both real and metaphorical. In one of the key stories, ‘Arizona’, which depicts an hour’s acupuncture session administered by Mae to an academic, Liz, who is just entering the menopause, the acupuncturist says that she envisages the ‘new state’, the post-menopausal self, ‘as being like Arizona… arriving in another state, brilliantly lit and level and filled with dependable sunshine’. Something is wrested away from the derogatory, popular, inevitably male-manufactured notions of that new state and reshaped as a brighter beginning, a liberation, even.
Throughout the collection, focused rigorously on the August years — Mae’s term for the fifties — of (mostly) women’s lives, Simpson goes about this kind of overturning and revision of centuries-old assumptions about women and their inner and outer lives with wit, humour and a steely yet compassionate intelligence. ‘Erewhon’, for example, reimagines gender relations as an absolute inversion: it is the man who lies awake in the small hours worrying about all the trivial things women are supposed to worry about, such as body shape, snacking, dissatisfactions of sex, children, partner watching porn, and it is the woman who runs a successful business, has all the power, turns over and begins snoring immediately after having sex. The last five words have the effect of a slap to the face. The story is witty, hilarious and deeply discomfiting, certainly to any male reader.
Two of the stories have section breaks in the form of the ticking of a digital clock; one story is divided into the five consecutive days of its unfolding; another one marked by the stops on the Piccadilly Line. The people Simpson writes about are no longer in their youth and have become conscious of the noise of time; not so much as intimations of mortality as different experiential stages of life. She rehabilitates the process of getting older by pushing against its dominant cultural understanding and finds joy and consolation and a hard-won if provisional wisdom, or the beginnings of wisdom. Sometimes one gets the sense that her stories are some kind of futuristic instruments, wearing the disguise of the short story, planted into the heart of evolving contemporary life to take hyperaccurate readings of the inner weather and shifting equilibria of a certain class of society.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.59, Tel: 08430 600033. Neel Mukherjee’s novel The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year.
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