Jeffrey Eugenides' 'Fresh Complaint': Visions of Life, Love, and Desire
Fresh Complaint is a strong short story collection that will complement fans of Eugenides's novels and introduce another generation to his humorous, profound, humane worlds.
The brilliance of Jeffrey Eugenides' work as a novelist is in part his ability to pace himself regarding releases. Prolific outputs are not always the mark of a writer who matters. His heartbreakingly beautiful 1993 debut novel, The Virgin Suicides was followed in 2002 by Middlesex, a prescient epic story that manages to be about both intersex identity (a character raised as a girl but born a boy) and the Greek-American experience. It garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Eugenides and cemented his reputation as a careful, precise writer. The Marriage Plot (2011) followed the lives of three Brown University graduates as they tried to balance love and purpose as newly recognized adults in a strange and difficult world. The landscape of an Eugenides story roamed through Michigan, Greece, and the always rocky terrain of poor impulse control and physical desires always left unfulfilled.
Fresh Complaint, a set of ten short stories written between 1988 and 2017, is less a demonstration of "greatest hits" than it is an exemplification of work in progress. Some of the titles, like 1995's "Baster", pale in comparison to the stronger efforts for a few reasons. That it was the basis for the 2010 romantic comedy The Switch starring Jennifer Aniston, doesn't help its literary credibility. It's a comic tale told to us by a guy named Wally Mars, an old friend of Tomasina, a woman whose biological clock is ticking. Tomasina, a 40-year-old TV producer, seeks the help of her friend, a fertility expert, to procure the ingredients that will make fertile eggs into babies. It's a funny, somewhat trivial tale with unlikeable lead characters, but it's won over in the final moments when we see that Wally's role in this endeavor might be bigger than expected.
In "Early Music" (2005), the key to understanding the characters seems to rest in how the music and the lead character are inextricably linked. "Early music is rational, mathematical, a little bit stiff, and so was Rodney." He studies the field of early music because nobody really knows what it sounds like. He and his wife Rebecca live in that world and understand studying, teaching, or performing it won't make them a fortune. They can create their own sense of early music:
"You had to make an educated guess and do the best you could. For whatever you played there was no indisputable tuning or handwritten schematic, and the visa you needed in order to see the Master's keyboard is always denied."
A variation on that image about the Master's keyboard, the grand plan, hovers through several of these stories. In 1997's "Timeshare", a man is visiting his parents in Florida, at their timeshare condo, "…a couple of weeks, maybe even a month. I won't go into why." His parents had made a million, lost it years ago, and were in the twilight of their lives. Eugenides gives us some haunting scenes of the son seeing his father standing before a toilet, "…as though he's been doing it for years, he begins to pound on his stomach, over where his bladder is…There's a moment of silence before his stream hits the water." It's all about the realization that the master plan for happiness once under their control will never again return.
"Find the Bad Guy" (2013) is among the highlights in this collection. A man understands the restraining order that prevents him from connecting with his estranged wife and children. He'd married his Bavarian wife Johanna so she could get a Green Card and join him. ("Bavaria is the Texas of Germany," she tells him.) Our hero (named Charlie Daniels, but not the Charlie Daniels) gets caught up in the web of another woman, but he always goes back to Johanna. It's a sweet, humorous tale where the vagaries of love are purely expressed. "We found each other for so long before we lost each other," our hero admits, and the essence of a search never fulfilled is beautifully rendered.
"Air Mail" (1996) and "The Oracular Vulva" (1999) are variations on stories that were explored deeper in The Marriage Plot and Middlesex respectively. In the former, we meet Mitchell, the soul-searching religious studies major bedridden in Thailand with a case of dysentery. He's entranced by the idea that all matter is illusory. He wants to experience what William Blake saw, angelic visions and a higher purpose. He writes home to family about lepers he'd met in Bangalore. "He didn't want to go back to the world of college and clove cigarettes." By the time he seems to recover from his physical condition, we wonder if he's died in the traditional way or if he's transcended to a higher ground. In the latter story, an anthropologist (Peter Luce, later featured in Middlesex,) trying to support his theories on evolutionary intersexuality, wanders through a remote jungle village and finds he has to fight off strange temptations from the natives. Are the apparent strange sexual customs in this culture at the root of our deviations?
There are a few stories here that don't measure with the others, but it's inevitable. "Capricious Gardens" (1988) is most interesting in the potential it shows for greater development. A collection of characters convene in Ireland to share ideas and enjoy the scenery, all the while the severed preserved finger of St. Augustine (of course counterfeit) hovering as both a curse and a blessing. "Great Experiment" (2008), stronger and more interesting, features a character whose main purpose is to abridge Alexis de Toqueville's Democracy In America for a small publishing house. The message of that 1835 text perfectly reflects the perspectives of these characters as they look on a land where high-minded ideologies are vanishing:
" 'In that land the great experiment of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis was to be made by civilized man… to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past.' "
Eugenides wisely bookends Fresh Complaint with the two most recent stories. In "Complainers" (2017) an 88-year-old dementia sufferer finds comfort in a vaguely familiar Inuit tale. That type of literature provides "…the self-forgetfulness, the diving and plunging into other lives." Della and Cathy believe the story has resonance to their lives:
"The book isn't in the same category as the detective stories and mysteries they consume. It's closer to a manual for living. The book inspires them."
In the title story, also published in 2017, a cosmologist academic named Matthew has to deal with the consequences of a statutory rape charge from nearly a year earlier. Prakti, the teenaged girl who is the other party to this scandal, has to deal with expectations and arranged marriages and the fact that her connection with this adult man may or may not have been fully consummated. It's a deliberate and controlled story that nicely balances the regret of a man who made bad choices with the impulses of a young teenaged girl desperate to escape from her conventions. That Eugenides offers the potential of a happy ending makes this story resonate even stronger than a reader might expect. Fresh Complaint is a strong short story collection that will complement fans of Eugenides's novels and introduce another generation to his humorous, profound, humane worlds.
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