Fresh Complaint (Stories) by Jeffrey Eugenides
An understatement: Jeffrey Eugenides is one of the good ones. It’s equally understated to say he doesn’t publish novels all that often. With three to his name, each are about a decade apart. But all along he’s been writing short stories, and the first gathered collection is here. As an overall work, Fresh Complaint doesn’t feel like a very “now” statement. Included are stories written throughout Eugenides’ career, as far back as the 1980s. It’s a letdown because it reads like a cleaning out of his literary closet rather than the “fresh,” crisp statement implied by the title. Perhaps sky-high expectations pose an unfair challenge, but Eugenides doesn’t shine nearly as well here as in the epic grandeur of his longform novels. We are left with a collection that feels like the warmup exercise for a main event that has already happened.
Most disappointingly, around half of the stories follow a repetitive template: in each, we meet a character in the present at the tail end of a nose dive, with regard to their personal, professional, or financial life. After a brief glimpse of their current squalor, we get extensive expository flashbacks chronicling their squandered potential among the unfortunate roadblocks that precipitated their downfall. It’s disheartening, because when we do finally revert to the present tense, their fate feels largely sealed. It stifles any potential immediacy, making it a waste of energy to root for them.
“Early Music” is the first example of this narrative pattern. A clavichordist conducting research in Germany for his PhD dissertation sees his plans crumble under immigration red tape at the embassy. In the present, he is married with children, scarcely making ends meet on a music teacher’s salary. Will the family’s debt grow large enough to risk repossession of their overpriced clavichord? Next comes “Timeshare,” in which a Florida man’s once-booming real estate enterprise gradually crumbles throughout the years. Now with a teenage son, he takes out a last ditch loan to buy a fixer-upper motel in an unenviable section of Florida’s swampland, and everything that can go wrong does. In “Find The Bad Guy,” one of the collection’s stronger entries, a deep south native enters a transactional marriage pact with a German woman for the purposes of a green card. In the present, he stands fifty feet outside the house of his wife and kids, kept at this distance by a restraining order filed in response to his drunken destructive presence in the family. This story does contain moments both funny and touching, but it’s hampered by the limits of the recurring structure.
What breaks this trend is “Capricious Gardens,” about a Scottish man playing host to two backpacking American girls. His sexual aims are foiled by an old friend who shows up unannounced and, in the throes of some kind of existential epiphany, serves up the ultimate cockblock. The tale takes place primarily over the course of a single night in the Scot’s estate, and reads with the liveliness of a one-act play. The fate of each participant is visibly on the line, making this tragicomic tale more gripping than most of the others.
To gauge how Eugenides has evolved since the 2011 release of The Marriage Plot, perhaps it’s fair to focus on the collection’s two 2017 entries, which open and conclude the collection. First up is “Complainers,” about two women late in life who maintain an improbable friendship that perseveres as their professional and personal lives wither away by natural causes. This story does contain some hope and redemption that the remainder of the collection sorely lacks, but it relies too heavily on the thematic scaffolding explored in the two women’s shared affection for the book Two Old Women. Concluding the book is the eponymous entry, about a married physics professor’s tryst with an Indian-American student seeking to break out of the cycle of her family’s preference for arranged marriage. While initially engaging, it eventually relies too heavily on a Gone-Girl-esque con and the plot sensationalism derived through a pending sex offender case. It’s also slightly jarring to see Eugenides stumble through the hyper-modern concepts of video chatting and twerking, especially when paired alongside stories nearly thirty years old.
Longtime Eugenides devotees should absolutely read Fresh Complaint. They will be treated to a couple of fun easter eggs: two stories feature characters from Eugenides’ last two novels, likely the initial kernels later expanded into his subsequent masterpieces. Though a fun treat, they nonetheless make this work feel like a scattered boxed-set rather than a fresh evolution of an author’s voice. If the genius of Eugenides’ epic grandeur can’t be condensed into compact form, that’s a reality we’ll have to live with.