JEFFREY EUGENIDES was a surprising writer from the start. His mysterious, elegiac debut novel of 1993, The Virgin Suicides, narrated by a chorus, earned him a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and eventually a pretty good Sofia Coppola adaptation. About a decade later came Middlesex, an Oprah’s Book Club pick and Pulitzer Prize winner. For novel number three, The Marriage Plot, the author appeared on a billboard in Times Square, strutting toward the viewer, vest dangling open — not the kind of promotional material typically seen for dramatizations of literary theory. As of this writing, there have not been any reported sightings of airships festooned with Eugenides’s visage; no ads for Fresh Complaint ran during Super Bowl. Short story collections tend to receive humbler receptions than novels, and reading Eugenides’s first three books, one can see why. The sustained voice of The Virgin Suicides, the epic scope of Middlesex, and the depth of The Marriage Plot’s characters are non-condensable achievements. Short stories simply cannot do what these books do. But more impressive than any single book is how uncommonly varied Eugenides’s writerly interests are, and something a story collection like Fresh Complaint can do better than the novels is showcase that range.
The stories span from 1988 to 2017, predating his first novel and postdating his latest. By Eugenides’s own admission, they make “a very mixed bag.” As with his novels, the stories are not all riffs on the same theme or told in the same voice. Still, to better adumbrate Eugenides’s preoccupations, we can crudely lump them into three categories.
In our first group, which consists of the title story along with “Air Mail” and “The Oracular Vulva,” dramatic friction occurs when Western characters are estranged from the West in one way or another. “Air Mail,” the best story in the book, originally appeared in The Yale Review, was selected by E. Annie Proulx for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 1997, and is almost certainly culled from an early draft of The Marriage Plot. Mitchell Grammaticus, the most mystically inclined of the novel’s love triangle, nearing the end of his eight-month trip across Europe and Asia, waylaid by dysentery on an island in the Gulf of Siam, fasts, refuses medical help, and writes letters that unnerve his parents (e.g., “Dear Mom and Dad, I watched a woman being cremated this afternoon”; “Dear Mom and Dad, I think I have a touch of amoebic dysentery”; “Dear Mom and Dad, the Earth itself is all the evidence we need.”). The collection’s other spin-off, “The Oracular Vulva,” published in The New Yorker in 1999, has in its crosshairs Dr. Peter Luce, the creepy sexologist from Middlesex who wants Cal, the novel’s genetically male narrator, to live as a woman. In “Vulva,” Luce visits the Dawat, an isolated island tribe where the sexes live in “strict segregation” and pedophilia is universal among the men. He has fallen into disrepute after his theory that gender identity becomes fixed in early childhood was disproven, and he hopes studying the Dawat will clear his scholarly name. And in “Fresh Complaint,” Prakrti, an Indian-American teenager, thinks she has it in her to seduce a middle-aged physicist, so she could be “no longer a virgin. No longer a suitable Hindu bride.”
Another group of stories has the common denominator of their events being instigated by financial pressures: “Timeshare,” “Early Music,” “Great Experiment,” “Find the Bad Guy,” and “Complainers.” In “Timeshare,” the narrator moves into his parents’ motel by the sea (“I won’t go into why,” he tells us), that is the latest moneymaking scheme of theirs. Of these five stories, “Timeshare” confronts the dislocation caused by the pursuit of wealth most straightforwardly, but the constraint of meaningful choices such a pursuit entails means that nobody in the story makes any choices other than to passively lose money and borrow more, with no material consequences; thus, the story suffers from inertia. “Early Music,” about Rodney and Rebecca, a married couple who met years before in grad school and who have no idea what to do about money, suffers from this same inertia too, but Eugenides’s depiction of Rodney’s drive to play his clavichord at the expense of his personal relationships and finances — no doubt inspired, at least in part, by the own author’s drive to write — elevates the story.
“Great Experiment” is the thematic cousin of “Timeshare” and “Early Music.” Set in “Chicago, refulgent in early-evening, late-capitalist light,” it opens (emphasis original): “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?” That becomes the ringing question of the story. The narrator, Kendall, formerly a precocious poet, works as an editorial assistant for a smut rag publisher-cum-liberal lion. The title refers to a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; Kendall’s boss thinks that “what the country needed was a super-abridged version of Tocqueville’s seminal work,” so Kendall’s job is to find predictions Tocqueville made that could be interpreted to reflect poorly on the Bush administration. Kendall’s liberal boss does not think, however, that he should pay for his employees’ health insurance, which pushes Kendall to make a rash decision: a choice that gives “Great Experiment” a dramatic urgency that “Timeshare” and “Early Music” lack.
Another such choice, but with more favorable consequences, occurs as the climax of “Complainers.” Cathy and Della’s friendship fissures when Della’s husband decides to drag her around Florida “scouting for investment opportunities,” unilaterally blowing their retirement savings. He seems to be having “fits of insanity,” but Della goes along to Florida, and Cathy resents her for it. When her husband dies, Della has to sell her house and move into assisted living, and she is left dislocated from her friends, children, community, and home. In some ways, “Complainers” is an obvious story, but that obviousness is enabled by subtle writing, a free-indirect style that modulates between Cathy’s and Della’s points of view, and since these characters aren’t intellectuals, Eugenides can shamelessly indulge in the down-home wisdom of the schmaltzy books they love. The result is a story that feels true without being cheap and, in the final paragraphs, offers the most moving writing in the book. “Find the Bad Guy” uses a similar tactic, but goes entirely into the first person. The narrator, Charlie Daniels (not the Charlie Daniels), a bit of a simpleton, marries Johanna so she could get a green card. Years later, Charlie lurks outside the home he and Johanna own, trying to see his kids without violating her restraining order, telling his story in his own voice, which is rife with couples-therapy argot and lines like, “And oh my Lord if Johanna didn’t look good in a pair of blue jeans and cowboy boots.” In “Complainers” and “Find the Bad Guy,” compared to the others in this group, socioeconomic pressure takes a backseat to ideas about friendship, aging, love, and marriage, but it still creates the sparks of conflict.
“Find the Bad Guy” could also, viewed from another angle, be lumped into our final category: sexless sex comedies. Charlie strains to feel manly enough for his fetching foreign wife; “Baster” (adapted into an eminently forgettable Jennifer Aniston movie called The Switch) relies on that same sense of physical inadequacy. The narrator, Wally Mars, is so unassuming that the reader isn’t even keyed into the fact that he’s a character in the story until several pages in. Wally’s ex, Tomasina, once terminated a pregnancy of theirs; now she is looking for a sperm donor, and Wally is trying not to be offended that she did not bother to consider him, even though he is smart and rich — “but money doesn’t count, apparently, in the selection of semen.” “Capricious Gardens,” the earliest entry in the collection, is a sex farce set among a repressed houseful of backpacking American girls and local Irish men. As it goes in this sort of story, tension and humor result from none of the characters’ desires being in-sync. “Capricious Gardens” is fun to read and technically impressive, managing many points of view, but does not seem to have much to say.
Yes, a crude breakdown, as promised. We could endlessly find threads between these stories — how the urge to write in “Air Mail,” for example, dovetails with the urge to play clavichord in “Early Music,” though the best exploration of creativity comes in a near-throwaway paragraph in “Great Experiment,” where Kendall picks up a small jade horse and thinks of its sculptor, who “took a living, breathing horse standing in a misty field somewhere in the Yellow River valley [and] had so seen the animal that he’d managed to render its form into this piece of precious stone, thereby making it even more precious.” Or we could talk about the role of aging in “Complainers,” “Baster,” and “Timeshare,” or the subjugation of women in “Complainers,” “Early Music,” and “Fresh Complaint.”
Yet the common thread between the most successful entries in this collection is not thematic, but in the attention paid to character. (We can also peg the shortcomings of a story like “Timeshare” as shortcomings of character: the story only gives us a muzzy picture of who the narrator is.) In “Complainers,” Della picks up an old book she loves and starts rereading it: “[I]t’s mostly the act itself that brings relief, the self-forgetfulness, the diving and plunging into other lives.” If Jeffrey Eugenides’s most impressive achievement is the variety of his voices, those voices are rooted in characters, and Fresh Complaint showcases the vast breadth of humanity its author can call to life.