Fresh Complaint, Jeffrey Eugenides’s first short-fiction collection, reads like a career retrospective. Comprised of stories that ran in The New Yorker and elsewhere over the last 29 years (only two stories appear to have been written for the collection), the book showcases the obsessions and hallmarks that have come to define Eugenides as a writer. We follow odd-ducks, middle-aged failures, and bourgeois literary types as they trek off to India, quest for a sense of fulfillment, sacrifice their ambition, and generally struggle to be happy.
Like Eugenides’s novels, these stories focus on characters who are trying to live as they see fit. In “Air Mail,” Mitchell is a young man trying to avoid reality by giving into fevered “epiphanies” while he slowly dies from starvation and dysentery. Unlike the Mitchell of The Marriage Plot, who grows disenchanted with India after failing to find revelation, this Mitchell becomes more and more convinced that the country is offering him a glimpse into a hidden world. Over and over, he refuses medication in favor of growing closer to this sense of the truth. He writes fevered, bizarre asides to his family about how “The energy flow of the universe is capable of being appercepted. We are, each of us, finely tuned radios. We just have to blow the dust off our tubes.” While he recognizes the failings of his body, he also insists that he’s never felt so intelligent or happy in his life, and chooses to ignore the advice of those who recognize death may be coming for him.
To his credit, Eugenides never suggests that Mitchell’s experience is anything less than genuine or real, letting the character guide the narrative to its ambiguous conclusion, wherein Mitchell either lets himself die in the ocean, or decides to live in India and start over completely. But this commitment to a vantage point proves to be a double edged sword: it muddies the resolution of the story. Eugenides has a great eye for detail, capturing the general vibe of Mitchell’s bohemian life (casual sex predicated on comfort, not lust; pills and pot; large, celebratory group meals) with precision, but his refusal to write above the character and create tension makes the final lines feel placid, with sentiment just out of reach. It’s as if Eugenides believes the work will have depth simply because he wants it to. It’s a shame, since Eugenides is a writer equipped with a rare ability to be both fussy and smooth in his approach to the sentence.
While this story was published in 1996, a good six years before Middlesex changed his career, it’s a good example of the criticism most often lobbed at Eugenides. He aims to both do the research required for a topic and weave it into something that can stand on the shoulders of Bronte or Tolstoy, but that ambition has can lead to a lack of nuance and tenderness. In each of his novels, there are passages with the potential for transcendence, but then those passages end. This gripe is exactly what makes “Early Music” such a welcome treat, as it manages to shove the ego of the protagonist aside and make room for empathy. In this story, Eugenides manages to have it both ways, making room for details of both the clavichord and the sad protagonist who plays it. The piece follows Rodney—clavichordist, father, and husband, holder of a soul-crushing job—as he lets his beloved instrument get purloined by repo men.
Rodney’s wife, Rebecca, puts all her effort into getting her scent-filled stuffed mice in stores, and Eugenides uses his great attention to detail—a dishwasher full of still water; never-ending spaghetti nights—to paint a picture of a happy family with a bank account full of moths. A flashback to Rodney’s fortieth birthday party, when Rebecca gifted him a plane ticket to Germany and a down payment on the clavichord, helps to make the decision to part with the instrument plausible. Coupled with the realization that he was a mediocre performer, and that there had “always been something a little pathetic about being a clavichordist,” the decision comes across as genuine, if not entirely selfless. All of this serves the ending, which sees Rodney climbing into bed and encouraging his wife’s dream. Here, the ending of one strange passion to support another feels touching, bringing harmony to the couple’s life while they drift off to sleep alongside scented mice.
Perhaps this reads so well because it’s a rare instance of Eugenides locking into a narrative that puts the heart before the head. All too often, the folks who populate his work use pretension to mask failure. In “Great Experiment,” we follow Kendall, a lowly poet ensconced in middle-age hipness. As he clings to his semi-bourgeois life, Eugenides explains that “His sense of their marriage as counter-cultural, an artistic alliance committed to the support of vinyl records and Midwestern literary quarterlies had persisted even after Max and Eleanor were born.” All of this is an attempt to ignore the fact that he can’t afford to heat the house, and has yet to find a job that offers benefits. Too often, the focus of a story is a Kendall type. Even when you deconstruct it, there’s little wisdom to be found.
In “Find the Bad Guy,” which reads as a laundry list of bad male behavior, we’re introduced to Charlie D, a polite Southern DJ who uses his persona and charm as a way to excuse his awful antics. The work begins with Charlie D stalking about his property, trying to check in on his family while being mindful of his restraining order. Using Southern jargon like “mosey,” “sugar pie,” and “mad as a wet hen,” Charlie goes on to apologize for his drinking and womanizing while simultaneously excusing it. Attending couples counseling with his wife, Johanna, Charlie dislikes the fact that their therapist is female. “Thought it would make her partial to Johanna’s side of things.” Eugenides simultaneously attempts to put a button on what makes him so self-sabotaging, and subtly deconstruct the Southern MRA persona. Here, the problem, again, is that the conclusion doesn’t fit the bulk of the story. Like the ending of “Air Mail,” Charlie D’s desire to keep the fire burning with his wife is beautifully rendered, with Charlie desperately wanting Johanna’s younger face to come out, “not only because it was the face I fell in love with but because it was the face that loved me back. I remember how it crinkled up whenever I came into a room.” But, also like “Air Mail,” there’s nothing for the reader to feel. Charlie has intentionally destroyed his family because it wouldn’t conform to his needs.
Despite the disconnect between plot and payoff that dog so many of these pieces, Fresh Complaints is a reminder of how dazzling a writer Eugenides is. The reason there’s so much disappointment is because there’s so much magic in his sentences. In “Complainers,” the first piece of the collection, never published before, the full spectrum of Eugenides’s talents is on display. He manages the pace expertly, listening closely to the beats of the friendship between Della and Cathy and the turns it takes as Della develops dementia. Bouncing between lucidity and fogginess, Eugenides garnishes the story with moments of surreality, mixing dread and light. In the conclusion, Eugenides doesn’t aim for grand sentiment, but a sense of surrendering. During a snowfall, Della recognizes how the static landscape is like her own brain. She pauses to think about what it would be like to walk into it. “Going out in the snow, disappearing into it, wouldn’t be anything new to her. It would be like the outside meeting the inside. The two of them merging. Everything white. Just walk on out. Keep going. Maybe she’d meet someone out there, maybe she wouldn’t. A friend.” Maybe this is Eugenides pivoting, growing, walking into the snow. Maybe this is a new start.
Eric Farwell is an adjunct professor of English at Monmouth University and Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in print or online for The Writer’s Chronicle, Esquire, Salon, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Vice (forthcoming), and The Los Angeles Review of Books (forthcoming).