by Becky Blake

Heaven’s Gone to Hell by Andrew J. Simpson
BareBackPress, 2015; 174 pp

What if you could bottle happiness and sell it? What if your girlfriend was the most perfect woman on the planet? What if you could trade your unwanted gold for new memories? What if you could PVR your life and then skip forward to the highlights?

In Andrew J. Simpson’s second short story collection, Heaven’s Gone to Hell, he invites readers to participate in these and other thought experiments. “Let’s say you’re having a bad day,” Simpson suggests in the first line of the book, and from then on we’re riding shotgun, comparing our own notes with Simpson’s clever and often funny musings.

As the title of the collection implies, Simpson delights in undeifying his subjects while taking common ideas and flipping them upside down. What if it were desirable to live in Hell? What if God secretly preferred sinners to saints? What if angels were bad-ass criminals selling fake passports to Heaven?

While Simpson’s theoretical gymnastics frequently riff on the afterlife, many other stories launch from idioms. There’s a woman who “kills with kindness.” Children “walking uphill both ways to school” to counter obesity. A guy “chasing his dreams” as they try to escape from him across The Rockies.

Revelling in extended metaphor, Simpson often personifies concepts or emotions. In “Carpe Diem,” he writes: “I seized The Day. I got him coming out of the shower and threw him against the wall…” In “The Emotional State,” it’s love that’s taken on a human form, that of a tyrant staging a coup: “Love conquered all. Love did it by taking the long view. By the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late.”

While Simpson’s writing style feels a bit repetitive at times—for most of these sixty stories he uses an unemotional tone with lots of reported dialogue—his ideas continually refresh and are definitely his focus. The strongest stories manage to ask questions that challenge or criticise in thoughtful ways. His dystopian, near-future scenarios are especially provocative. What if computers took over the world and were more empathetic than humans? What if you could teleport everywhere but found yourself missing the chance to bump into people? Other stand-out stories play with meta-conceits about the act of creation itself. “My High School Art Teacher Said I Had Talent” features a torture chamber that churns out genius artists. “Vera Is Based on My First Girlfriend” depicts a story that learns to literally speak for itself.

Overall, the effect of imagining so many hypotheticals back-to-back feels like exercise for a muscle worth strengthening. What if we all inquired more frequently about the status quo of the world around us? This seems to be the cumulative question at the centre of Heaven’s Gone to Hell, and it’s well worth considering.

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