May 21: “Lentils and Lilies” by Helen Simpson

Good day to you, Story366! Today was another really beautiful day in Missouri, sunny, cool, and open to lots of time with my family. We ate at Waffle House—yeah, it’s pretty fucking great, isn’t it?—then went for a walk in a big park. It’s a great park with gardens and playgrounds and lots of wildlife, and maybe the highlight of the whole thing was feeding some bread to a whole coterie of aquatic life living in this pond. Firstly, I’ll note we didn’t have any bread, but this nice family gave us a couple of slices so my kids (and I) could feed the animals. One thing about Missouri I can’t deny: Nicest people anywhere, Missourians. Whether it’s a stranger handing out slices of bread, or Cardinals fans graciously acknowledging my Cub hat, starting a civil conversation on baseball, I’ve found the folks here to be downright pleasant in every way.

Anyway, what was really interesting about these particular bread-gobbling critters is their array. There were geese. There were ducks. There were giant carp. There were bluegill. There was a turtle. All of them were gathered under this foot bridge to get receive from park visitors, all of them wrestling for bits, a chance at free food. Do the animals understand, I wonder, how odd it is for a giant carp and a goose to fight over a bread crust, a beast of the air and a beast of the sea, their large bodies converging, their mouths coming together, fighting over some Wonder like those dogs did over spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp? There were so many carps, the geese seemed to think they were the floor of the pond, walking across them like planks. What does a carp think when a goose uses it as a stepping stone? What does a blue gill think when a duck steals bread from its mouth and then rises up into the air and flies away? I wonder if these animals have the capacity to think that way, to be in awe of flight. Probably not, but as I walk along the trails with my family, I can’t help but think about this kind of thing. Don’t even get me started on that poor turtle. It had to be thinking—had to be—“I’m not that slow, not in the water!” but as many times as I tried to flick a swatch of bread in its direction, something else would outswim it, snatch it from its jaws.

Oh, yeah, and there was a bouncy house. After, we got milkshakes.

For today’s post, I read one of the collections I picked up this past week in Chicago, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life by British author Helen Simpson, out from Vintage. I’d not read any Helen Simpson before—odd because she has five collections of stories and has been in The New Yorker a bunch—so it was a treat to come to something completely new. I read the first two stories, “Lentils and Lilies” and “Café Society,” along with a later story, “Opera.” I thought about investigating “Café Society,” as it’s about a woman and her friend dealing with a misbehaving toddler, something I can certainly identify with. I’m going to write about “Lentils and Lilies” instead, though, as it’s a bit more fun, and if there’s one thing I’m all about, it’s fun.

“Lentils and Lilies” is a story about Jade, a woman at university, reading English literature, preparing for her forthcoming exams (did that sound British enough?). She’s trying to make heads or tails of Coleridge, the most difficult of the Romantics, she thinks, but hopes she doesn’t get the Coleridge exam. I guess those exams are like the American GREs, particularly the lit subject test. I’ve never taken that—I never had to—but I remember friends and colleagues talking about The Faerie Queene like Jade considers Coleridge, how there were a dozen different exams you could get, and one of them was heavily stocked with Spenser questions; this sucked because The Fairie Queene was the most difficult text to understand, and to have your academic future based on your knowledge of it was daunting, even unfair. Some people I knew just skipped reading it altogether, rolling the dice they wouldn’t get the Spenser exam. No one I knew ever did (so maybe it’s all a myth). In any case, it seems like Jade is thinking of Coleridge in this same manner, just hoping she gets to write on Keats instead.

This is just one of the ways that Simpson sets up Jade. Jade is an interesting character, one who applies her knowledge of poetry to the world, taking it in with an eye for detail, a search for meaning and beauty. She takes walks with the intention of discovering such things, of examining the natural world. She has the soul of a poet, for sure, with the burdens of a college student. Sounds like a lot of people I know.

On one such walk, needing to get away from Samuel Taylor, Jade runs into a woman with two screaming children. The woman is a mess, her clothes and hair and body disheveled, clearly defeated by the burden of having two screaming children; Jade, unabashedly, judges her, looks down on her. The woman’s problem? The older of the two kids—also still a baby—has rammed a lentil up her nose. The woman, seeing Jade, begs for help, forces the request upon her, and Jade, taken aback, never has a chance to say no. Before she knows it, she’s inside the woman’s flat, helping her remove the lentil with a pair of tweezers.

Okay, so a nice turn to the story. Basically, the first half of this ten-pager is a character sketch of Jade, this poetry student fretting over exams. Then Simpson sends her on a walk, where anything and everything can happen. I love that about this story, any story, that sets up one of those anything-can-happen-next scenarios. Simpson delivers. Screaming babies? Legumes rammed into orifices? Medieval surgical procedures? Count me in.

So Jade is in this woman’s house, the kids still screaming, the woman getting ready to hold the lentil-infused kid still: She wants Jade to do the extraction. Jade, then, has to go through all kinds of soul-searching, either to find the strength to do this act, or to find the courage to say no to this pathetic, desperate creature. Of course, I’m not going to tell you what happens next—you should read the story to find out—but what a predicament, right? A strange baby, a stranger’s house, a crude tool, you having to put one inside the other. Eek.

I like Helen Simpson’s work , all three stories from Hey Yeah Right Get a Life that I read, “Lentils and Lilies” most of the three. She’s another new author to me—there’s lot more of that going on as I move toward the halfway point of the year—but now she’s another author that I know about, have learned from. Check her out. And then consider a goose wading across a floor of carp, how insane that is. Both are worth your thoughts.

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One thought on “May 21: “Lentils and Lilies” by Helen Simpson

  1. Pingback: May 22: “Old Soul” by Sam Lipsyte – Story366

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