The nine tales in Helen Simpson's brilliantly biting short story collection, "Getting a Life," are set in London suburbs, a zone frozen in domestic sludge and in a time warp impervious to the women's movement.
Simpson's women go to universities and are hired for top jobs, but they also get married, pregnant and soon after feel buried. Some employ nannies and agonize over that choice. Others put their careers on hold and tailspin into mind-numbing infant care. The men who bedded them as mentally nimble, athletically built professionals raise cross eyebrows at the harassed, thick-waisted impostors who show up beside them at night. Simpson's men feel zero parenting impulse and view their offspring as nagging consequences of reckless couplings. Further assaulting Simpson's women is Britain, a land where complaining and candor summon tongue clucking instead of social revolution. This terrain will remind readers of Fay Weldon's cursed and pleasant land, but Simpson's boil is more furious, her satire more surreal and Swiftian, her vision more end-of-tether violent.
Simpson doesn't mount a soapbox. She plants a surveillance camera inside darkest family life and describes the scenes with mordant comedy and lush, exact language. Mostly we see women apart from men; when men crop up at dinner parties and on vacations, they're peeled by the narrators down to pompous, irritated, lost stumps. Plot doesn't drive the tales, in the same way that plot doesn't direct most lives. Each narrative can be summarized in a sentence, and many involve a female seeing a painful reality she'd prefer to keep curtained. In "Golden Apples," the teenage daughter of a stupendously taxed mother gains horrifying proximity to a hysterical neighbor, whose wailing child has wedged a lentil up her nose. In "Cheers," a Christmas shopping outing detours into a landscape of gin-soaked, bed-sitter aloneness.
The two strongest tales, the title story and "Hurrah for the Hols," are blistering accounts of everyday routines played out by a recurring family: parents Dorrie and Max, who've assumed traditional roles and feel rageful resentment toward one another, and their three young children, around whom the parents' war is waged. It's stunning how rarely moment-to-moment life with children has found its way into literature. In all art forms, children and child care are mostly sentimentalized, or kids are trotted out for cameo appearances (even as demons) before snot begins dripping from noses and house pets become the subjects of sadistic experiments by inquiring tots. Simpson is a Breughel of the nursery, to wit this morsel of a typical day for Dorrie:
"Maxine's nursery school crony, Suzanne, came to play after lunch. Dorrie helped them make a shop and set up tins of food and jars of dried fruit, but they lost interest after five minutes and wanted to do coloring in with felt tips. Then they had a fight over yellow. Then they played with the Polly Pockets, and screamed, and hit each other. Now, now, said Dorrie, patient but intensely bored as she pulled them apart and calmed them down and cheered them up."
There are pages of this chronicling, and it's mesmerizing because of Simpson's precise observations of mood shifts and because of her extravagant unfurling of language. One child wets his bed, so each night Dorrie aims "the shrimp of his penis" into the toilet. Another child gets a blister, and Dorrie cuts a Band-Aid to fit "around the pea-sized top joint of the toe." Attempting to dress three children in the morning is "like wading through mud after dragonflies." Like Beckett's monologists, Simpson's narrators need to inscribe entrapment, which for the women is partly a function of loving their offspring. Amid the tedium flicker moments of rapture: "[H]e rubbed his barely-there velvet nose against hers like an Eskimo, his eyes close and dark and merry, inches from hers, gazing in without shame or constraint."
Simpson's women feel such bonding emotions as sabotage and as narcotics that dull their discontent, but they succumb to them. Nowhere in Simpson's world are there dads--as can be spotted here and there on American streets--who do the marketing harnessed with Snuglies. Simpson's fathers don't shop for food at all. They resent the attention their children absorb and treat them roughly, which only makes them cling more to their mothers.
This tension fascinates Simpson. In her stories it's not eased, rather given flesh and breath. The women don't confront the men but instead seethe and contemptuously carve them up with scalpel eyes. At times the reader wants to shake Dorrie and her suburban sisters and demand they revolt. In her relentless anatomy of their lives, Simpson is doing just that.