Helen Simpson: “Diary of an Interesting Year”

08/10/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, December 29, 2009. From the O. Henry Prize Stories 2011.

Given that I read each issue of The New Yorker cover-to-cover, I must have read this, and yet I have no recollection of it, which doesn’t speak highly of Simpson’s story. The chosen style for writing of a post-global-warming world (“The Collapse,” “The Big Thaw”) of chaos and cannibals is one of desperate humor, in which a woman’s uses her thirtieth-birthday present — a diary —  to record the attempts of her and her older, professorial husband to flee across Europe to Russia, like a reversed, zombie-like version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. But unlike Margaret Atwood’s speculative MaddAddam series (Oryx and Crake, for one), Simpson isn’t interested in the science of the collapse — “‘Threshholds crossed, cascade effect, hopelessly optimistic to assume we had until 2060, blahdy blahdy blah, the plutonomy as lemming, democracy’s massive own goal.’ No wonder we haven’t got any friends.” She also isn’t as graphic as Cormac McCarthy in The Road, so when G. is killed and she’s captured by a man named, in the style of old literature, M., his rape and violence toward her seems almost comic, given the odd cleverness of her observations: “M. can’t seem to get through the day without at least two blow jobs,” and “I’m just meat on legs to him. He bit me all over last night, hard. I’m covered in bite marks. I was literally licking my wounds.”

And yet, it’s not hard to see why this story makes it into the O. Henry collection: the short, fragmentary style (she has to conserve paper) and grim, determined 2040 setting causes it stands out among short stories, most similar only to Gary Shteyngart ‘s 2010 “Lenny Hearts Eunice,” which had the flaw of being an excerpt from his excellent novel, Super Sad True Love Story. The ground-up approach from this ignorant narrator works, too, in that for many of us, we’d be doomed without Google: how many of us know actual survival skills, like how to decontaminate/purify drinking water, to say nothing of the ingenuity needed to cope with a post-apocalyptic pregnancy. The plotting is also cleverer than it appears, for it includes some decently realistic details on the fall of government (which plays “The Enigma Variations” on loop), the cries for “compulsory billeting,” and the greediness that causes those last communities to become undone.

The largest complaint, really, is only that the story doesn’t do more with character. She’s in such a perilous situation that she spends most of her time simply recording (rather than reacting) to it, and though she’s forced to switch from a passive to an active survivor, we don’t see her thought process detailed in the journal — which, again, is by the nature of her limited resources a very streamlined, cut-to-the-quick series of notes. This leads to some nice images — a final, tree-top stand, surrounded by tins of baked beans — and some statements that are all the better for being open-ended (“I wish I had a gun”), but we’re all but missing an actual heart. The “interesting year” is the character here, and Simpson’s ultimately trapped by her focus on that, and all her flourishes and literary echoes, nice as they are, serve only to distract from the style.

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