In-Flight Entertainment

Helen Simpson is an anomaly: voted one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 1993, but yet to produce a novel, she is the Chekhov of the checkout counter. Her stories are sometimes playful and surreal - featuring gods, goddesses and spirits with Sparkian elan - but more often rooted in a deeply domestic, middle-class and usually female world, tinged with misunderstanding, deceit, oppression and the essential injustice of biology.

The sexy young women grappling with desire and childbirth in her first collection (Four Bare Legs in a Bed) have in this, her fifth collection, become saggy-breasted mothers, spied on and sniggered at by the young, who have no idea what time has in store for them. The flights that menaced London in Constitutional (her fourth collection), have become a metaphor for both costing the earth and the deaths of selfish septuagenarians who know they will be gone before the end of the world comes. These are menacing, millennial themes, and what they add to the universal they take from the particular.

All Simpson's female characters, although they are given different names, feel like the same Everywoman. Dorrie from Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (Simpson's third collection) is almost indistinguishable from Susan in "Squirrel", identifying with the destructive creature that her husband has trapped, or from Jackie in "Channel 17", unable to enjoy her weekend in Paris. These bored, frustrated wives and mothers, in love with their babies but not their husbands, never seem to have a job or put feminism into practice. The only female character who feels "powerful, like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat", is the mother dictating a creative writing assignment to her unimaginative son. The men tend to be obtuse, painfully funny creations, whose selfishness is also a bit too predictable. It would be good to see Simpson depicting at least one good father and one bad mother somewhere in her gallery of grotesques.

Similarly, the otherwise naturalistic dialogue is marred by her habit of varying "said" with "hissed", "rasped", "snapped", "carolled", and so on. But for all that, satirical monologues such as "Ahead of the Pack" (the spiel of a "personal Carbon Coach" and "Emissions Expert") and the title story are superb. The overweening language of the executive who knows all the facts and none of the truth is something Simpson has satirised before, and here - as in "Sorry?", the story of a deaf widower trying to get to grips with a hearing aid that conveys other people's thoughts and the cacophony of hell - it seems like the start of something bigger.

Simpson is so good at mimicking the patterns of thought, and its habit of seguing from small personal moments of comedy into large perceptions of tragedy, that the time has come to ask where she stands in the pantheon of short story writers. Is she up there with modern masters such as Alice Munro, Grace Paley and Muriel Spark? Will she, like Chekhov, Maupassant, Saki and Poe, be read 50 years from now? Usually there are about three stories in a Simpson collection that stand out, and these, I think, easily beat other admired authors such as Lorrie Moore and Carol Shields.

Her wit, and her insight into birth, mortality, marriage and families, certainly mark her out as a writer whose ambition is both constrained and enhanced by choosing this most modest of fictional forms. There are other female writers today who work this territory in novels, most notably Rachel Cusk, but Simpson's art is more refined for being so seemingly effortless, unforced and entertaining.

In-Flight Entertainment
Helen Simpson
Jonathan Cape, 144pp, £14.99

Amanda Craig's sixth novel, "Hearts and Minds", is out in paperback, published by Abacus (£7.99)