“You really MUST read Hey Yeah Right Get A Life” – Cockfosters by Helen Simpson

chsFor the last five years, we’ve been forcing Simpson’s Hey Yeah Right Get A Life onto just about everyone we’ve met, short fiction fans or otherwise: it’s not simply a collection of brilliantly constructed short stories complete with fantastic dialogue and gloriously realistic characters, but it’s also just about the most insightful look at early parenthood we’ve come across in fiction (a shout-out to Jenny Offill, though, who comes pretty close in Dept. of Speculation). It’s a book that’s political in the broadest sense – Simpson’s dealing with gender roles and power relations and the interactions between family life and careers, all without sacrificing story or character or affect. You’ll laugh, as they say, and you’ll cry. So, anyway, the new collection’s been on the Bookmunch radar for ages. And what did we think…?

Well, frankly, we were disappointed. Which, given the anticipation, amounted to a maxed-out type of disappointment that left us sad and sorry and not a little irritated. However, let’s see what’s in there so you can get a taster before we start to properly rain on the whole parade. There are nine stories here (the last, ‘Berlin’, is closer to a novella in length), each named after a place, real or fictional, and each of which is dealing with old age or its encroachment, in the way that Hey Yeah Right was all about the onset of adulthood (conceived as parenthood). As such, it’s like a thematic sequel to the earlier book; a progression that makes sense, in that who wants a rehashed version of an earlier text, right? We want development! So, in the opener, the title story, two old friends catch up and talk about getting older while they chase a lost pair of glasses to the Tube line terminus. In ‘Torremolinos’, a hospitalized heart-attack survivor coaches a prisoner who’s faking it on how to simulate his symptoms. In ‘Erewhon’, a downtrodden house-husband in a gender-role-revered society expresses his stresses and discontents in a Butler-esque satire on social and domestic repression. In ‘Kentish Town’, an all-female book club dissects the world’s ills; in ‘Kythera’, a mother bakes a birthday cake for her daughter while reminiscing about the child’s life to date. ‘Moscow’ also explores gender roles via a woman’s encounter with a Russian plumber and the memories he evokes of a business trip she made to Moscow. In ‘Cheapside’, an aging male lawyer tries to convince a reluctant boy to study law, while contemplating his ex-wife, his current wife, his career, in an extended exercise in deluded self-justification. In ‘Arizona’, a woman going through the menopause discusses it with her acupuncturist, and, finally, in the last and longest story, ‘Berlin’, a couple try to resurrect their failing marriage via a trip to Germany to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle with a tour-group of older fans.

So that’s the gist – and what’s wrong with it, you’re wondering? Well. It felt tired. The topic’s fine – old age isn’t any less interesting than the trials of youth, and it’s underrepresented in fiction, despite Marilynne Robinson’s efforts – and we know Simpson can write, but the ways she explores the issues here are well-worn in terms of structure, and the characters and plots don’t really transcend the Theme we’re supposed to be pondering each time. For instance: the back-and-forth between the old friends in ‘Cockfosters’ is zingy, but that’s all – there’s no story or development, just a snapshot of dialogue that introduces the book’s theme in a way that lacks resonance or depth. It’s pretty predictable. And so is ‘Erewhon’: we like the gender reversal, but we already know that the patriarchy sucks – we don’t really need a role-reversal to highlight that, and the contents, or the context of the narrator’s misery, isn’t new either. Like ‘Cockfosters’, ‘Kentish Town’ is dialogue-heavy, but the dialogue in this case descends into polemic: we might agree with the anti-establishment rant here, but again, there’s no underlying story, tension, peril or intrigue: the characters are cyphers for distinct political stances and the story’s a vehicle for their disagreements. The points they make might be absolutely valid and interesting, but this meant to be a story, right? ‘Arizona’ has a similar problem, and the mother’s nostalgia in ‘Kythera’, while realistic and carrying some emotional weight, again fails to give us a plot; here, the cake-making is an excuse for an extended flashback that recaps a family’s life without introducing much in the way of a present-day story to keep us interested.

We don’t want to enumerate everything that irked us, but you probably get the idea. We did like some parts of it: ‘Torremolinos’, for instance, was a surprisingly upbeat and entertaining story, so short it verged on flash fiction, and funny, as well, without relying at all on cliché, and with a story-line which, though brief, kept us reading. And, as we said, the whole late middle-age and old-age thing is well worth exploring, and props to Simpson for not skirting around it, and for continuing to skewer the way women are sidelined in society from childhood through to the far end. But overall, the book relies too much on that roll-out of ideas, and while it’s frank, honest and occasionally very funny, the stories aren’t compelling enough, the characters aren’t developed enough, and the Socratic exchange conceit gets wearying.

Any Cop?: We’ve got to say no – but still, you really MUST read Hey Yeah Right Get A Life.

 

Valerie O’Riordan


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