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11 April 2016

What the short stories of Helen Simpson and Ali Smith say about social equality

Both writers were benificiaries of the post-war consensus. Now, Cockfosters and Public Library both make the case - in different ways - for access to reading.

By Anthony Cummins

Helen Simpson, born in 1959, and Ali Smith, born three years later, were beneficiaries of the Education Act 1962, which funded undergraduate tuition fees and living costs. Neither writer’s parents had gone to university; both followed English BAs with doctoral study at Oxbridge. “I think there was a window at that time for people from my background,” Simpson has said; shutting that window, Smith recently told this magazine, is the act of an “idiot generation”.

In both writers’ work there is dismay at the loss of the postwar consensus that nurtured their aspirations. Smith’s most recent book, Public library and other stories, inter­cuts 16 typically freewheeling short fictions with statements from writer friends and the greater public on why England’s libraries should remain open despite council cuts. In “Kentish Town” – a story in Simpson’s latest collection, Cockfosters – four women put the world to rights at their book group, arguing for a living wage and proper taxation; they are reading Dickens, who wanted us (as one of the women puts it) to “start minding”.

This is a fair way to think about what Simpson and Smith do, too. But if Public library is a protest, it’s a celebratory one; Simpson is the writer throwing bricks. In collections published every five years since 1990, she has narrowed her eyes at the trials of life as experienced by women of the squeezed middle classes. The fiftysomethings in Cockfosters don’t have it any easier than the ground-down mothers of Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000), which pre-­dated the post-millennial fashion for the sharing of domestic travails, from Mumsnet to Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Now, Simpson’s characters are “yo-yoing up and down the M1” to help frail parents – there’s a reference in one story to a 64-year-old caring for her 93-year-old father while babysitting grandchildren and sheltering a divorced daughter. They are hounded with performance reviews at work and can’t even have sex, obliged now to tiptoe around teenage children rather than watchful parents.

Monologue or dialogue is Simpson’s favoured form. Very occasionally satire comes at the expense of realism, with stagy dialogue and a denial of self-awareness to the characters who express the arguments. In “Moscow”, the entrepreneur who tells us she hesitates to hire women because they can’t commit to work is the mirror image of the corporate lawyer who narrates “Cheapside”, unrepentant when his wife and children leave him because he refuses to take even one night off a week.

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Smith’s dressed-down ­experimentalism, by contrast, feels free from contrivance, partly because it is normal in her fiction for (say) a narrator to turn into a tree or talk to her dead father. It is also because she puts herself in the picture. “I had been planning to write this story about the ashes of D H Lawrence,” begins “The human claim”, which then reflects for two pages on John Worthen’s 2005 biography. “But then I got home and opened my mail and I stopped thinking about anything because there was a Barclaycard statement waiting for me which claimed I’d spent a fortune.”

This narrative move – typical in Smith – both splits our attention and grips it: we are left wondering how her restlessly synthesising imagination might join the dots. It turns out someone has fraudulently bought an airline ticket on the narrator’s card; using Google Street View to find the airline’s British office eventually leads the narrator to look at Harmondsworth, the place of publication for Penguin’s paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The story ends with the narrator imagining how she might “whisper . . . dissent, comfort, hilarity, love, sparkling fresh unscripted human responses into the ears of the people working for a pittance answering phones for businesses whose CEOs earned thousands of times more than their workforce”. In Cockfosters, what one character considers the inequality of neoliberalism is often tinged with envy. Simpson gives a version of the following line to two characters in separate stories: “I look around me at work and I see some very average people who’ve made a great deal of money over the last twenty years.”

Smith’s conversational, anti-Flaubertian style lets her say what is on her mind without having to rig up a scenario first. Simpson hits hardest when she sidesteps realism, as in the mischievous parallel universe of “Erewhon”, in which a man can’t sleep while his wife snores beside him, oblivious:

What she couldn’t seem to understand was that it was hard, he found it very hard to run the house and look after her and the children as well as hold down a full-time job.

We are told that the farting, belching Ella avoids childcare, housework and foreplay; that she is physically abusive and disparages her husband’s appearance; and that her mother, not incidentally, has just replaced her second husband with “a trainee barista” a third of her age. The narrator frets – like all the men he meets at the school gates – about whether he’s a good enough father. The effect of “Erewhon” is similar to the satirical Twitter account Man Who Has It All, which parrots for men the kind of advice given to women. (“TODAY’S TIP: Leave your wife to her own devices with the kids sometimes. Try throwing her in at the deep end and see how she gets on!”)

Simpson sharpens her fiction to a fine point, the better to dig into social wounds, while Smith’s stories explode the form into a discursive free-for-all, full of spirit-swelling optimism, even when writing about the death of a friend in Public library’s moving coda, “After life”, first published in this paper.

Another writer might have wrung pity or even fear from the events of “Last”, which involves a bunch of smoking schoolboys watching a wheelchair user trapped on a train. Here the point is pure play, the action providing a peg for etymological investigation: why is “fine” a “payment for doing something illegal at the same time as it meant everything from okay to really grand”? Matching what Ali Smith does in 140 characters would be tough. 

Cockfosters by Helen Simpson is published by Jonathan Cape (145pp, £15.99)

Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton (217pp, £16.99)

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war