Mistress of Brevity

We live in an age of artistic excess. Novels get thicker. Movies get longer, begetting sequels and then threequels.

Writers such as Helen Simpson, however, appreciate the art of brevity.

Since 1990, the British writer has published a novella and four short-story collections, each greeted with rapture by critics and glee by fans.

Simpson's latest, "In the Driver's Seat" (published in Britain as "Constitutional"), joins her earlier volumes in dissecting the lives of mostly middle-class — and increasingly middle-age — men and women.

These are quotidian tales. In one, a 40-something teacher ponders her father's Alzheimer's and her fertility during a lunchtime walk around London's Hampstead Heath. In another story, a mother driving her children to school reflects on aging, ambition, motherhood and divorce.

Between the lines, Simpson serves up big themes — birth, death and life-altering illness — in small, piquant bites.

"Sometimes, you get novels that are so full of padding you feel like saying, 'Come on, come on, move it,' " she said. "Usually, at the end of a novel, I think, 'I like that, I enjoyed that. I wish it was shorter.' "

Simpson knows this puts her in a minority. Relatively few living authors who write in English — Simpson mentions Canadian Alice Munro and Irishman William Trevor — have built their career on stories rather than novels.

Simpson says each form has qualities that the other lacks.

"I like reading novels, and you don't get lost in stories in the same way," she said. "It's not that same pleasure of sinking down into a warm bath or losing yourself."

On the other hand, stories "can be like knives," Simpson said. "You're getting something truthful and intense in a song that cuts through all the surface stuff. So many novels get bogged down in class detail, or clothes detail. Songs get more to the heart of things, and stories as well."

Simpson likens their power to that of songs and popular ballads whose anonymous heroes tell tales of common experience.

"She is concerned, on the one hand, with the familiar details of daily life," said Victoria Wilson, senior editor at Simpson's U.S. publisher, Knopf. "And, on the other, with the larger sweeping issues we all have to contend with."

Simpson's characters are fictional, but their experiences roughly follow her own. Her first collection, "Four Bare Legs in a Bed," was published in her early 30s, after several years as a journalist at the fashion magazine Vogue. Its stories featured young couples coping with the passion and the shock of commitment and marriage.

As Simpson grew older — gaining a husband, two children and a home in north London — many of her characters acquired mortgages, children and self-doubt.

Her breakthrough came in 2000 with the collection "Getting a Life," which was published in Britain as "Hey Yeah Right Get a Life." The stories' descriptions of childbirth, new mothers and the exhausting demands of young children gained critical praise and brought Simpson to a much larger audience.

"I remember at readings, readers would say, 'It's like samizdat (clandestine manuscripts),' " Simpson said. "Nobody was writing about (birth) then. Everybody is now. It's a taboo that was broken, going on about babies and little children."

"In the Driver's Seat" tackles another taboo: death. Illness and infirmity loom large as a cause for anxiety and a source of comedy. In the short story "If I'm Spared," a selfish foreign correspondent diagnosed with lung cancer vows to change his ways if he lives. In "Every Third Thought," a woman describes with a mixture of dread and schadenfreude a cluster of cancer cases among her acquaintances. In both stories, life — and fate — has surprises in store.

Simpson says she intended "Every Third Thought" as "a cancer farce."

"I wanted to see if I could take that subject, as miserable as it is, and frightening, and give it a topspin, make it funny without trivializing it," she said. "There is something funny right at the heart of even tragic events when they're speeded up a bit."

Simpson has more stories in the works. She was published recently in both the New Yorker and Granta magazines. And the author, hailed a decade ago as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, says she may yet write a novel.