Award-winning US novelist's short-story collection is filled with brilliance, writes James McNair
Book review: Jeffrey Eugenides's Fresh Complaints
No tension, no drama, they say, so it is no surprise that the richly drawn characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’s first short-story collection are up against it. There is Charlie D, who is subject to a restraining order, but retains contact with his daughter by playing the online game Words with Friends with her as an anonymous, invisible opponent; and there is Mitchell, a mentally ill backpacker battling dysentery on a remote Thai island.
Close watchers of Eugenides – the novelist behind 1993’s The Virgin Suicides and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winner Middlesex – will recognise American college student Mitchell Grammaticus from Eugenides’ third, most-recent novel, 2011’s The Marriage Plot. Here, in the story Air Mail, Mitchell’s regular toilet visits because of dysentery are sketched with blackly comic virtuosity, but elsewhere in Fresh Complaint laughs tend to be hollower. These are characters battling money problems, ailing marriages, the taboo customs of other cultures and their own often-unflattering desires.
The book’s 10 stories were written between 1988 and this year, and all but the two Eugenides penned this year have previously appeared in literary journals or multi-author short-story collections.
Arresting opening lines include “Skulls make better pillows than you’d think” and “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?” The latter line comes from Great Experiment, in which married couple Kendall and Stephanie, both desirous of better living conditions than at their “big fixer-upper” in Oak Park, Chicago, battle with their liberal ideals.
Envy will lead Kendall into crime, but before we get to that point, there is a lovely description of the couple’s extraordinarily messy sleeping space: “Across the country, the master bedrooms of more and more two-salaried, stressed-out couples were looking like this,” Eugenides writes. “…The bedroom was like a den where two bears had recently hibernated. Or were hibernating still. How had it happened in one generation? [Kendall’s] parents’ bedroom had never looked like this.”
For this reader, at least, the book’s least-memorable/rewarding story is the opening one, Complainers, wherein Cathy is losing her older friend Della to dementia, and Della’s sons have moved her into a shabby retirement home. Still, even if Complainers lacks some of the fireworks and narrative drive that make other stories here so compelling, it has moments where the brilliance of Eugenides’s writing pulls you up short.
“Pay no attention to the terrors that visit you in the night,” another of Cathy’s friends tells her. “The psyche is at its lowest ebb then, unable to defend itself. The desolation that envelopes you feels like truth, but isn’t. It’s just mental fatigue masquerading as insight.”
That story was written this year. But reading this collection it strikes you that, in terms of his skill as a writer, Eugenides was just as adroit many moons ago. Early Music, for example, is a brilliant, erudite and quietly moving story written in 2005.
Within it, inanimate objects central to the lives of married-with-children couple Rodney and Rebecca help Eugenides show how they have lost their way, both individually and as a couple. Rodney, who dreamt of being a professional musician, is being hunted down by a debt recovery company chasing payment for the apple-green clavichord he adores, but rarely has time to play. Rebecca, meanwhile, finally realises that she isn’t going to make millions selling the microwaveable toy mice stuffed with potpourri – Mice ’n’ Warm, runs her trademark – that she makes in the spare room at a poor profit margin.
If the wide timespan between these stories – and indeed between Eugenides’s three novels to date – suggests he is hardly prolific, the level of quality control here is impressive. Further, the lengthy title story, the second of the two works here written this year, proves he can still dazzle.
It centres on Matthew, an Oxford-educated physics professor whom we slowly learn has disgraced himself in some way, and Prakrti, a precocious, Philadelphia-based Indian-American girl trying to sidestep her mother’s plan for her arranged marriage.
It is a story that keeps you guessing, and one that has deft time-shifts, as Eugenides tells Prakrti’s backstory. There is also a memorable sentence detailing Prakrti’s annoyance at an email she has received from the eager, Kolkata-based young suitor her mother hopes she will wed.
“If the boy had sat down with the intention of revolting Praktri with every word, if he were a Shakespeare of pure annoyingness, he couldn’t have done better.”
These resonant, superbly well-crafted short stories show that Eugenides, still a professor of creative writing at the Lewis Centre for the Arts in Princeton, has plenty more to teach his students.