Helen Simpson’s 2015 collection of short stories, “Cockfosters: Stories” is preoccupied with the ordinary. Each story takes place over a short period of time — often no more than an hour or two — and in most, there is little physical or external action.
Simpson deftly balances narrative and interiority in these small compartments of time. Each story is both dull and thrilling, slow-moving and blindingly insightful. The strongest stories in the collection are about gender, a theme on which Simpson delivers startling insights through various unremarkable men and women.
Perhaps the best story in the collection is “Erewhon,” a delightful skewering of gendered expectations and dynamics. The title is a nod to Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel, the setting of which is a satirized Victorian society.
In “Erewhon,” a middle-aged man lies awake in the very early hours of the morning. He ponders the emotional distance that has developed between him and his wife and hopes to transition to part-time work. The first page of “Erewhon” seems, at first glance, unremarkable. Slowly, though, the subversive nature of the story emerges. “Not nice to think how the overwhelming majority of men who were murdered were murdered by their own wives,” the narrator says darkly.
The strength of “Erewhon” is how ordinary the world it creates is — no detail is outlandish, except for the premise of the gender-swap itself. All the cultural and social expectations and norms associated with women are now applied to men, and vice versa. “It was hard,” the narrator says, “the way older women got better with age while men lost their sexual allure … Nobody really respects a man anymore once he turns 40, particularly if he’s losing it on top.”
Simpson slickly pokes fun at the heavily gendered aspect of the real world by maneuvering the sad, frustrated protagonist of “Erewhon” through assorted machinations. “In a pathetic attempt to fight back, he’d recently been engaging on a spot of newsagent guerrilla warfare,” Simpson writes. “Now when he bought his paper he made sure to stick some of his preprepared Post-it to the naked boys on the covers of women’s magazines — notes he had felt-tipped in advance with the words WHAT IF HE WAS YOUR SON?”
In the other stories in “Cockfosters,” Simpson builds recognizable worlds. In this way, she gains our trust in her ability to assemble places and people we might know. In “Erewhon,” Simpson applies her trademark vigilance to an imagined place, one whose inversions bring to light that which is painfully familiar but also often obscured by its own routineness.
While sometimes verging on the ridiculous — the narrator talks about driving his daughter around the country for her competitive yoga tournaments — “Erewhon” is a masterful demolition of the pressures women are constantly under. “Don’t be such a MascuNazi,” the narrator’s wife says.
“That was what really worried him — him and the other dads,” the narrator explains. “They all agonized endlessly about whether or not they were good fathers.” Or: “He wasn’t overjoyed about still being on the Pill. All four of his grandparents had died of strokes or heart attacks, but Ella couldn’t tolerate condoms. ‘They muffled things,’ she said.”
Upon completion, it becomes clear that “Erewhon” is not quite a satire; it’s devoid of the amplification that defines the genre. There is no exaggeration, just a sleight of hand that exposes the world for what it is, and what it has always been.
“The world was woman-shaped — get over it!” Simpson writes. Reading “Erewhon” in 2018 is perhaps different than reading it when it was originally published in 2015. Brett Kavanaugh was appointed to the Supreme Court this week, despite multiple credible accusations of sexual assault.
“This was the way things were,” writes Simpson. “This was the natural order.”