REVIEW: Jeffrey Eugenides' Fine New Story Collection is Full of 'Attention Grabbers'

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Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp.

By Robert Allen Papinchak

According to the ten stunning short stories in Jeffrey Eugenides’s collection of old and new stories, Fresh Complaint, life is full of ifs, along with a variety of laments and complaints. A Pulitzer prize winner (for Middlesex, 2002) Eugenides’s novels (The Virgin Suicides, 1993; The Marriage Plot, 2011) have skewered the angst of teen-age years, the trials and traumas of sexual identity, and the dangerous battlefields of family dynamics. These themes, and others, recur in these stories written between 1988 and 2017.

The two newest stories (from 2017), “Complainers,” and the title story, “Fresh Complaint,” are part of a volume full of engrossing narratives. They bookend the collection with a pair of devastating tales of survival and seduction.

In the opening story, “Complainers,” aged and longtime friends, Della, 88, and Cathy, 70, endure “lonely lives within.” Cathy, who lives in Detroit, is visiting Della in a retirement community in New Hampshire.  Della has been abandoned there by her sons. The two women recall the history of their friendship from the time they first met in nursing school when Cathy was in her 30’s and Della in her 50’s. Cathy worked in the bursar’s office, and Della, as an executive secretary in the dean’s office. 

The women bonded in Weight Watchers and in their love of books. One of those books, Two Old Women:  An Alaskan Tale of Betrayal, Courage and Survival by Velma Wallis, is a classic in its 20th anniversary edition. It is a retelling of “an old Athabascan legend” about two aged women “left behind to die” by their tribe because they are “complainers.  Always moaning about their aches and pains.” Della and Cathy, who have always been “giving in” to husbands, identify with the women. A minor accident triggers a major decision that makes them realize it is “’hatchet time,’” time to “take charge . . . Don’t mope.” Together they assert their independence until their lives become more “like the outside meeting the inside.”

In the final story, “Fresh Complaint,” Matthew Wilks, a fortyish professor of cosmology, is “enticed” into an alleged sexual encounter with a teenager because of his “concupiscence. That chronic, inflammatory complaint.”  Their personal and professional lives are in jeopardy unless a “’fresh-complaint witness,’” someone who was told about the encounter “’right after it happened, who can corroborate [the] story,’” can be produced. A cultural clash plays a significant role in ironic revelations and  unexpected plot twists because the teen, Prakrti, is promised in an arranged marriage to an Indian boy.

The remaining eight stories sandwiched between “Complainers” and “Fresh Complaint” explore other captivating events that trap characters in sometimes overwhelming circumstances.

This is certainly the case for Mitchell, the young traveler in “Air Mail,” who becomes “intimate with his insides.” Recovering from a bout of amoebic dysentery that he contracted while visiting an island off the coast of Thailand, Mitchell taps into what he believes is the “energy flow of the universe.” Readers familiar with Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot will recognize Mitchell as the Religious Studies major at Brown University. His search for enlightenment brings him to a moonlit skinny-dip at the end of his spiritual journey.

An outrageous revenge tactic leads to the ironic humor of “Baster,” a cautionary tale of reproductive experimentation for Wally Mars, one of three participants in Plan B, a “solitary, sadder, but braver” scheme of an assistant producer of CBS Evening News with Dan Rather who “after thirty-five . . . begins to have trouble conceiving.’”

In “Early Music,” marriage and fatherhood have squelched all aspirations and ambitions for 43- year-old Rodney Webber. His life is full of ifs, regrets, and failures. At 26, his passion was the early music of the clavichord. He found it “rational, mathematical, a little bit stiff, and so was Rodney.”  He wishes he had stayed in Berlin where he played a famous Hass clavichord to sometimes half-full concert halls. If “he’d stayed in Berlin, if he’d gone to the Royal Academy, if he hadn’t gotten married and had kids, maybe [he] would still be playing music.”  Instead, he is saddled with major debt (trying to pay off an antique clavichord that he bought from the Early Music Shop in Edinburgh), giving private music lessons while his wife brings in a small income from her home business stitching “four varieties of Mice ‘n’ Warm mice.”  Rodney comes to realize that he shares an “obsolescence” with his beloved antique instrument.

More aspirations are thwarted in the five remaining stories. In the somewhat slight “Timeshare,” the narrator, from Detroit, travels to Florida in hopes of gaining an inheritance from a father who was always involved with get-rich-quick schemes. In “Find the Bad Guy,” a D.J. who is a country western consultant hides in the bushes of his house, observing the life of his green-card-bearing wife and their family.  Dr. Peter Luce, a sexologist in “The Oracular Vulva” —a story closest to the subject of the intersexuality of Middlesex—has his own variety of complaints, “specifically, his ruined career.” Doing fieldwork in the jungles of Irian Jaya “at his age” he finds himself fending off the sexual advances of a young male native.

The opposite is true for 43-year-old Sean in the provocative “Capricious Gardens.”  Set during a sweltering summer in Ireland, after Sean offers a ride to two young girls, Amy and Maria, all he can think about is having sex with Amy. His intentions are thwarted when an old friend, Malcolm, shows up at his doorstep. Malcolm is distraught, considering suicide after his wife has left him for another man. Sean’s wife, Meg, has also abandoned him. Malcolm has been traveling, “hoping to find, in freedom of movement, freedom from pain. The quartet of lost souls plays out a delicate dance of seduction over a sensuous meal of steamed artichokes. 

The title of the next to last short story, “Great Experiment,” refers to the small publishing house in Chicago where 45-year-old failed poet Kendall Wallis has worked as an editor for fifteen years. The name comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The title also refers to an embezzlement scheme that Kendall and the house’s accountant, Michael J. Piasecky, concoct to misappropriate millions from their 82-year-old boss, Jimmy Boyko. Kendall is tired of living in “middle-class squalor, in married bachelorhood.” Like Mitchell in “Air Mail” and Della and Cathy in “Complainers,” he is trying to match the outside of his life with the inside.  His ideal is to “remain dutiful to a preservationist ethos while not depriving yourself of modern creature comforts.” Kendall’s home “achieved an authentic state of interiority . . . but the outside was always breaking in.  Rain leaked through the master-bedroom ceiling. The sewers flooded up through the basement drain.” Kendall and Michael warehouse The Pocket Democracy, an abridged version of the de Tocqueville classic, in order to fund their futures in Bermuda.

Readers will have no complaints with this emotionally intense series of stories. Eugenides’s style dazzles.  His characters are engrossing. Their lives are captivating. “Fresh Complaint” is an unforgettable selection of attention grabbers.   

Robert Allen Papinchak has reviewed a range of fiction in various newspapers, magazines, and journals including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, The Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Journal of Books, among others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.