“Up at a Villa” by Helen Simpson (in Zoetrope)
The writing is good. The cynical tone is consistent and reinforced by the author’s masterful use of description. In the opening lines, for example, sh writes,
“They were woken by the deep-chested bawling of an angry baby. Wrenched from wine dark slumber, four of them sat up, flustered, hair stuck with pine needles, gulping awake with little light breaths of concentration. They weren’t supposed to be here, they remembered that. They could see the baby by the side of the pool, not twenty yards away, a furious geranium in its parasol shaded buggy, the large pale woman sagging above it in her bikini.”
I didn’t care for the story. The parents are passed out drunk by the side of a pool and their baby is just sitting there by the side of the pool in a buggy? These seem like sophisticated people. Baby’s dad is too busy reading the “Times” to take any notice of the child and in fact is irritated by the baby’s presence. He tells his wife that he’s not attracted to her post-pregnancy body. The young couple with them are even shallower than the young parents. I’m left thinking that these two must have made the decision to have a child, there are other options after all. They must have gone through nine months of development and anticipation. They must have, filling their own roles, experienced childbirth. Where are the signs of that? I cannot like or sympathize with these characters. The story ends with a flight—an adrenaline rush as the two couples flee from detection (they’d snuck in to a hotel pool) and ends with a “photographic instant” of the “little family frozen together”. The ending predicts a continuation of the dead relationship this couple has with each other and with their child. A relationship that doesn’t even hint at any intention, any complexity, any love, not even to show how small it is in comparison to the selfishness and insecurity. The description was dreamy and affecting, but the story didn’t seem real and the characters were all pathetic.
This makes me think of what I was reading last night by Gogol on realism, “But the author who dares to bring all that he sees out into the open is otherwise. All those things that indifferent eye fails to notice—all the slimy marsh of petty occurrences into which we sink, all the multitude of splintered everyday characters who swarm along the drab, often painful road of life—he shows them clearly in relief, thanks to the power of his merciless chisel, so that the whole world may view them.” Perhaps this is what Simpson is doing in “At the Villa”, but still, I can’t help but think that her characters are too shallow to be real.