A man who feels inadequate succumbs to his malicious instincts towards a beautiful female friend. A husband who earns no money at his clavichord practice feebly attempts to ward off the debt exerted upon his family by the purchase of the clavichord itself. A professor has eyes for his student. This is a common theme of Jeffrey Eugenides’s new short story collection, Fresh Complaint: men failing to be virtuous. In each of the ten stories, Eugenides investigates the rules that govern families, social convention, and what we do to people who break those rules.
Some of those transgressors are innocents rather than villains. “Complainers” follows the friendship between a woman in her eighties and her friend in her sixties, who have known each other for years. Della, the elder woman, is gradually losing herself as cognitive decline progresses. She falls in a large store. “The metal edge shaves the skin off her arm with a rasping sound like a meat slicer.” Cathy sneaks Della out of the hospital and they share a few snowbound days together. No family members, no caregivers, the two of them reading together and sharing a past.
In another case, the titular story, “Fresh Complaint,” follows a professor named Matthew who falls like a bowling pin before the charms of an undergraduate, Prakrti. The conversation that precipitated their seduction “was like skiing,” Eugenides writes. “Like the moment when, at the summit, you first lean downhill and gravity takes hold, sending you flying.” Matthew thinks about himself in dramatic cadence, but when considering Prakrti herself she is blank. “The girl was specific enough yet vague enough to be any woman, or all women,” which is how Matthew seems to like it. But the seduction of Matthew turns out to be a mere plot move in Prakrti’s own journey, a step away from the marriage ahead of her and towards self-actualization.
“Complainers” stands in pretty sharp contrast to “Fresh Complaint,” and to the several other stories about men sabotaging their relationships. These elderly women are sympathetic and kind while the men of this book are selfish. The men make the kind of decisions that you would hear about and shake your head, sighing. But when seen together, the women of “Complainers” become outliers, too, much like the men whose failures test the reader’s tolerance for dislike. Eugenides finds an escape hatch for all of his characters. The men who crack in his stories are leaping out from the expectations of adult manhood; the elderly women are stepping out of their pattern as well. All these characters feel a powerful need to opt out, to not continue to exist in the same way that they had done before, to never go back.
The principle of escape also animated all three of Eugenides’s novels. In his 1993 fiction debut The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides polyphonically danced a group of sisters towards death, each away from a different future and into the abyss. Middlesex appeared in 2002 and won the Pulitzer. That novel in large part followed a gene mutation that seemed to figuratively thrust itself down the generations, moving from Turkey to the United States. The Marriage Plot (2011) marked a return to the intimate scale of Eugenides’s first book, but this time focused on the restraints and freedoms governing college and post-collegiate life.
Eugenides writes slowly, so Fresh Complaint feels almost like a sap to the readers who are waiting for another contrapuntal masterpiece. Some of these stories are old, in fact. “Baster” was first published in The New Yorker in 1996, and “Air Mail” is dated to that year too This book feels like a collection of more minor works—ones that relate to the central oeuvre, but are more of a testing-ground than a completed edifice.
Two old characters from Eugenides’s fiction recur in Fresh Complaint. Peter Luce was the “renowned” sexologist of Middlesex who recommended that Calliope Stephanides’s genitalia be surgically altered, a proposed intervention that prompts Callie to flee and become Cal. Luce reappears in the new story “The Oracular Vulva,” which sees him conducting field research into human sexuality in the remote community of Irian Jaya. His reputation has been threatened by a younger colleague and he needs to “discover” something urgently. But while doing his research he is tested by the sexual norms of this other culture, and his integrity is found wanting.
We also meet once again Mitchell from The Marriage Plot. On his travels across the world he has been struck down with dysentery. The story “Air Mail” follows his thoughts as they contend against extreme hunger and sickness. As in “Complainers” and indeed in his novels, Eugenides excels at flitting between scene description and his narrator’s interior life. There’s also a little reference to “The Oracular Vulva” in this story, when a fellow traveller named Gwendolyn recalls an “epic” case of “the trots” she had once in Irian Jaya.
So, even though these stories are brief and emotionally self-contained, it is as if Eugenides cannot help but indulge in a little weaving. Fabrics and textiles were a governing motif in Middlesex, literally embodied by silkworms but figuratively holding together the multigenerational world of the book. Short stories are a different type of world-making for Eugenides. Lisa Zeidner likened the new book to “outtakes” from the worlds Eugenides has already created, and this feels apt.
These stories are certainly less satisfying than the novels. But they are unsatisfactory for the reason that they are appealing. They gesture to tapestries of narrative that exist “off-screen,” so to speak; they unsettle and gesture to bigger worlds without cohering. That lack of coherence makes the characters of Fresh Complaint resemble the book which they live inside. Nothing falls together the way that we expect from an ambitious novelist. Instead, like people whose lives have not gone the way that they had hoped, these stories hang in an uneasy tension. But for that reason they offer quite a new Eugenides to his readers. This version of him is a little less masterful and a little more inventive, but very welcome nonetheless.