Thursday, December 24, 2009

The New Yorker: "Diary of an Interesting Year" by Helen Simpson

I suppose it’s possible to write an original, successful dystopian story, but this one doesn’t work. Or maybe it does exactly what it seems to be trying to do—show the consequences of ignoring global warming. In this story, an English couple in 2040 are struggling to survive—food and fuel shortages, foul weather, billeting of foreign refugees and troops—in the aftermath of the collapse of government, which in turn was caused by the Big Melt. Fearing for their lives and unable to put up with conditions, they flee north. Life on the road’s not so good either and the man is killed by another foreigner, who gets the narrator pregnant. The worst thing is to bring a child into this world and so the narrator has to take action, against the man first.

We’ve all read The Road. I don’t see that this adds anything to the equation except the female perspective including the problems of giving birth. If anything, this is bleaker than McCarthy's bleak novel. And if it is meant—since it came out during the Copenhagen summit—to be a call to action on global warming, it’s too easily dismissed as fantasy, even though it seems all to plausible to me.

It’s a fast, amusing, forgettable read.

December 21, 2009: “Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

That story struck me as so over-the-top grim, so relentlessly one-note bleak, piling awfulness upon awfulness in a rather preachy, self-pitying way, that it might easily mistaken for a parody. At times it reminded me of a Monty Python sketch.

Mark Richardson said...

Very forgettable. And writing a story in a diary format seems to be cheating, somehow. Go see the movie Children of Men. Much better.

Emma at South Mountain Yoga said...

I thought this story was terrific. At first blush it is totally grim. but i couldn't get it out of my head, and ultimately, I have come to find it super-empowering. The main character is a woman who is totally unequipped for the turn life has taken, but over the course of the year she acquires an animal cunning, resourcefulness, and courage.

I love how her friends have such feminine, cultured names (Esme, Lexi) but are reduced to washing out nappies. I love how she simultaneously is petrified of getting pregnant but still has sex (there's no other pleasure or joy left).

I read The Road and did not see the movie because the book is such a slog. However, this little piece is a gem, because the characters EVOLVE.

TW said...

I also can't get this out of my head. To me stories like this (and Oryx and Crake, and Children of Men), are the most hard hitting when the characters are aware of the world from which they fell.

This is the ultimate nostalgia, when your life and your memories straddle both the pre-apocalypse and the post-apocalypse worlds: the characters reminisce about the internet, about iTunes; they're horrified at the breakdown of water and health systems they've taken for granted. In the case of the children in a story like Road Warrior: Thunder Dome, who don't know any better, they isn't the same type of fear.

There is some hope at the end... but being simply afraid of getting pregnant, or not knowing how to get food: the writing was visceral.

Anonymous said...

What many of us don't realize is that this story doesn't have to be fiction or even taking place in 2040. It's already reality for millions of people, right here in 2010, and even right here in the US. Just imagine, where do you go when you're foreclosed on and thrown into the street, with no job, a broken down car, and no money? These conditions exist because today's pampered affluent are too self-absorbed to have any clarity for how the system that benefits them must first exploit others. Perhaps fittingly, the pampered never are the ones who survive.

Clifford Garstang said...

Hey, Anonymous, I wish I'd said that. Seriously, what happened to this narrator does indeed happen now, in the real world. Many of us forget about extreme poverty, and we shouldn't ever forget. Thanks.

Sue Velazquez said...

This story was not forgettable to me - quite the opposite, as I kept re-reading it, and could not get it out of my head. That said, I do have a weakness for diary formats (and Simpson's fiction). If it seems over-bleak, well, that's because we are getting ourselves into a situation in which it could be next to impossible to survive. No punches pulled there.

fictionaddict said...

Anonymous,

your comment is spot-on.