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BOOK REVIEW: ‘In-Flight Entertainment’

- - Friday, April 6, 2012

IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT: STORIES
By Helen Simpson
Alfred A. Knopf, $24 165 pages

Physically, "In-Flight Entertainment" is a charming little book: conveniently sized for the hand, and at 165 pages, light enough to be tucked into a handbag or pocket, and just the thing for reading in bed. Even the cover picture of an airplane window entices the eye into a soothing blue-and-white world.

But while the book as object is comfortable, most of its 13 stories are anything but comforting. The characters face illness, death, heartlessness, infidelity and the prospects of a world careening into global warming. The narrators who tell their tales often sympathize with their condition, but just as often skewer their self-absorption and unwillingness to face facts.

The latter applies particularly to global warming. In the title story, Alan is gratified to be upgraded to first class on the London-to-Chicago flight. As he takes "another sparkle-filled glass" and the champagne kicks in, he thinks, "It's being up in the clouds ... it's being in transit. I'm where it's at." Too true.

An elderly passenger dies, the plane is diverted to Labrador and Alan meets Jeremy, a scientist who calmly points out unfortunate facts such as "flying is far and away the fastest-growing source of man-made gases." Alan, who flies 50,000 miles a year for his job and takes family vacations in the Maldives, doesn't want to believe in the reality of global warming. Jeremy tolerates this. After all, it's quite an unpleasant chunk of information to absorb," he reflects, knowing that since he is in his 70s he won't live to see the worst of it.

This story can be read as a parable about science and the head-in-the-sanders, but that would be tedious - and unnecessary because of Helen Simpson's vivid conjuration of the mixed elation and frustration of air travel, and her careful tracking of the moods and truths of conversations with strangers.

The satirical edge to this story distances the reader to a place that makes thinking about its topics possible. In "Geography Boy," the narrator stays closer to the characters: students traveling in France and working out whether their love can withstand disagreements about global warming. This conflict is not entirely convincing, so the story is less successful than "In-Flight Entertainment." This is less true of the deft "Diary of an Interesting Year," a dystopia set in the warmed-up globe.

Global warming is only one of the themes of this collection, and really it is a subset of Ms. Simpson's broader concern with the task of facing frightening facts, especially illness and death. The unnamed woman who travels the tunnels of the London Underground has to enter a different sort of tunnel where she is scanned "to see what's inside that head of yours." The answer, as she knows, is the teratoma that is causing seizures and may kill her.

Later, looking at paintings in the Wallace Collection, she is struck by "the irrelevance and centrality of emotion in human life, and how the facts happened anyway, whatever you chose to feel about them." The narrator here is both sympathetic and terribly rational, and the story scintillates with vivid detail of the character's emotions and her surroundings.

Clarity of detail and elegance of finish are indeed typical of all the tales in this collection. "Squirrel" is operatic in its simultaneous attention to the thoughts of a teenager, her father and her mother, who is crossing her fingers that her affair remains undiscovered. "The Festival of the Immortals" tells of Viv and Phyllis meeting at a literary festival at which the likes of Virginia Woolf, George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence show up to read their works and answer questions.

Alexander Pope always drives a new high-powered sports car. "Jane Austen could be very sarcastic in interviews if you asked a question she didn't like." And as for Shakespeare, he may show up to give a master class on the sonnet, "He's supposed to be arriving by helicopter at four this afternoon, but it's always touch and go with him ... he's impossible to pin down."

This story is a lot of fun for literary types. Scientists will appreciate the stories about climate change. All lovers of the short story will recognize this collection as brilliant examples of the genre. It may not be the best volume to take to a friend in the hospital or to read on your next flight, but it's a book to savor and think about for a long time.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.