photo by Daniela Lunardi
Shortlisted for the THRESHOLDS Feature Writing competition,
Carys Bray recommends Helen Simpson’s short story collection,
Hey Yeah Right Get a Life.
At the conclusion of the short story ‘Cafe Society’ in her critically acclaimed collection Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, Helen Simpson writes, ‘It’s important to put up a decent apologia for your life; well, it is to other people, mostly; to come up with a convincing defence, to argue your corner… and if you can’t, or won’t, you will be shunned.’ When I first discovered Simpson’s writing I, like the women in ‘Cafe Society,’ was struggling to put up a decent apologia for my life; a sleep-deprived decade raising four children and the loss of my community when I turned my back on my strict Mormon upbringing had left me feeling like the title story’s Dorrie: ‘I can’t see how the family would work if I let myself start wanting things again… give me an inch and I’d run a mile.’ When I did finally allow myself to want something, I ran, or more precisely drove, to a Creative Writing MA course at Edge Hill University and it was there that I came across Simpson’s short fiction.
I was workshopping a short story about an awkward moment between a mother and daughter when tutor Jo Powell encouraged me to read Hey Yeah Right Get a Life. She even leant me her own well-loved copy, an act of kindness that I appreciated more with each turn of the page. Simpson’s stories were bursting with beautifully described reality; a crying child was compared to ‘a small combustion engine, full of distress,’ a teenager was ‘never going to go dead inside or live somewhere boring’ and the mothers were ‘as rabidly desperate as a talentless stand-up comedian.’ Simpson’s collection articulated so many of the things that I had felt, but never had the courage or skill to put into words. I grew up in a community in which men, referred to as prophets, repeatedly insist that motherhood should be both the sole focus, and the single most rewarding experience, of women’s existence: ‘When you have fully complemented your husband in home life and borne the children, growing up full of faith, integrity, responsibility, and goodness, then you have achieved your accomplishment supreme, without peer, and you will be the envy of all through time and eternity’ (Kimball, 1982: 327). Admissions of maternal ambivalence were implicitly verboten – I am one of five children and I have never heard my mother grumble, about anything – how could she, when to complain would be to question her divine role, as prescribed by God’s mouthpiece on earth? Simpson’s often irreverent, sometimes scathing and frequently humorous treatment of parenthood, familial harmony and gender expectations kept me turning the pages; I gobbled the collection in one greedy read.
People have joked that the stories in this collection may be the ultimate contraceptive; I disagree. Parenthood is, to purloin Dickens, the best of times and the worst of times, and Simpson herself notes that parents can ‘be very happy and very miserable at the same time’ (The Guardian, 2012). The title story traces Dorrie’s day, from an ‘early morning garden’ to ‘a midnight kitchen.’ The language in this story is poetic and fresh; Dorrie is ‘broken… into little pieces like a biscuit’ and ‘scattered all over the place,’ while the children live through ‘as many variants of passion as occur in the average Shakespeare play’ before they go downstairs for breakfast. When Dorrie’s son, Robin climbs into his parents’ bed in the morning, his eyes are described as ‘guileless, unguarded and intent,’ he gives ‘a little beatific smile,’ and his chest is ‘like a huge warm baroque pearl.’ This story is replete with keenly observed, humorous dialogue, from the judgements of the mothers at the school gate: ‘Look at her nails… you can always tell. Painted fingernails mean a rubbish mother,’ to the children’s unsuitable meal time conversation: ‘Kosenia scratched her bandage off today, and she’s got eczema, and she scratched it off, you know, that stuff on top, like the cheese on the Shepherd’s Pie, she just lifted it off.’ Simpson also depicts the loneliness and confinement of parenthood. Dorrie feels that she has, ‘schooled herself to harmlessness, constant usefulness to others… [she is] a big fat zero,’ and husband Max bemoans the loss of his ‘lively and sparky’ wife; he feels burdened by his three children, by ‘the whole pack of them on his back.’
While many of the stories in this collection feature children, some concentrate on adult relationships. In the very topical ‘Burns and the Bankers’ the reader views a corporate Burns supper through law firm partner Nicola’s unwavering gaze. The ballroom where the party takes place is filled with ‘an immense prosperous hum,’ and young bankers smile at their superiors like ‘stiff-necked nutcrackers, the ricti of servile mirth barring their teeth.’ No-one escapes Nicola’s scrutiny: Mrs Mahon has ‘the dusty look of one who has no desires of her own,’ the Scots are ‘blowhard old windbags’ and Alistair Wallace rattles out ‘anecdotes in thick hawking gutturals.’ The story concludes with an undignified, drunken brawl which is also viewed through Nicola’s attentive eyes: ‘She watched him as he sprawled and brawled in the churning tartan-flashing stramash of bottles and leftovers. You are the father of my children, she said silently. But don’t push it too far. Pal.’
Simpson explores the impact of work on relationships in many of the stories in this collection. In ‘Opera’, Christopher cajoles Janine into spending their anniversary entertaining his clients. Janine tries to be accommodating, but in the end she cracks and insults a client, calling him a ‘cloth-eared berk.’ In ‘Cheers’ Simpson hints at marital difficulties from the outset; Lois watches her husband lying asleep with his mouth ‘half-open, a little pocket of rotten-fruit breath playing at its entrance,’ and she is tempted to, ‘light a match a couple of inches above his teeth and watch the ghostly blue flames dance over his features.’ But it’s only later in the story, during a meal out with a friend, that Lois realises her husband has borrowed money from somewhere without telling her; money he can’t pay back. And as she walks home past windows decorated with Christmas trees, it also dawns on her that, ‘The house would go too, that was it. And he couldn’t tell her.’
There are other things that can’t be told. When the character Dorrie returns for the final story, ‘Hurrah for the Hols,’ she can ‘barely speak for rage,’ but she is so used to the feeling that she doesn’t ‘assign it much importance’ and merely wonders, ‘Who else… could be living at such a pitch of passion as she in the midst of this crew; so uncontrolled, so undefended?’ Simpson’s meticulous attention to emotional detail is one of the most appealing features of her writing – when I read this collection for the first time I repeatedly thought, ‘Yes,’ and, ‘Absolutely right,’ and, ‘That’s exactly how it is.’ I bought a copy of Hey Yeah Right Get a Life as soon as I finished reading Jo Powell’s copy, and then I bought every one of Simpson’s previous and subsequent collections, and I gobbled them too.
Jo Powell died suddenly last year, not long before the mother and daughter story I had been workshopping was published. By introducing me to Simpson’s writing, Jo allowed me to realise something that Simpson herself articulated in a Guardian interview: ‘It does seem ridiculous that describing domestic work and life – the daily reality of most women in the world – is seen as letting the side down’. Another of my favourite writers, Carol Shields, once said with some pride, that she made a point of including items like, ‘wallpaper… cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers,’ in her writing. The more short stories I read, the more confidently I am able to assert the following: domestic details don’t trivialise fiction, they humanise it. In ‘Wurstigkeit’, a story about an exclusive shop with a secret password, Simpson details a collection of beautiful clothes, ‘silks and velvets… raspberry-coloured and almost raspberry-scented… fine as a baby’s skin.’ When it is time to pay for the clothes, pregnant Isobel says to Laura, ‘You’ve got to make choices… You can’t have everything.’ And Laura replies, ‘Why not… Here at least.’ Simpson’s collection is analogous with the clothes shop Wurstigkeit. It’s a place where the reader can have everything – wit, insight, acumen, sensitivity and luscious prose.
I recently reread Hey Yeah Right Get a Life. As I luxuriated in Simpson’s vibrant prose, the effect was nostalgic rather than contraceptive. I ached for the time when my children used to fling themselves at me at the end of the school day, when they patted me with blunt, baby-padded hands and made grandiose statements about loving me most in all the world. I could suddenly relate to the old woman who offers unsolicited advice to the exhausted mothers in ‘Cafe Society’: ‘Make the most of it… It goes so fast… Such a short time.’ And yet, even as the thought settled and attempted to make itself at home, another part of me – the hard-nosed, pragmatic part – laughed and countered, hey yeah right, get a life.
Carys Bray’s debut story collection, Sweet Home, has been selected as joint winner of the 2012 Scott Prize and will be published later this year by SALT Publishing.
Helen Simpson’s new collection, A Bunch of Fives: Selected Stories, is published this week by Vintage Classics.