Jeffrey Eugenides’s Short-Story Sideline

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Jeffrey Eugenides Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Some short-story collections harness coherent conceptual bursts: fictions that might have been melded into a novel but instead between book covers make a whole of bundled fragments. Other collections chart the arc of a writer’s progress, sometimes over many years. Jeffrey Eugenides’s new book Fresh Complaint fits neither of these categories. Bringing together ten stories that have appeared at irregular intervals since 1988, the book relays the impression of a novelist indulging in the short form as if pursuing an occasional hobby.

I don’t mean that remark as a slight. Eugenides has devoted his working life to the novel, and the three he’s published have each represented a distinct and memorable conceptual achievement. The Virgin Suicides (1993), narrated in the first-person plural, resulted in a popular film. Middlesex (2002), a multigenerational epic told by an intersex narrator, sold millions of copies. The Marriage Plot (2011) may not have been a blockbuster, but that would be a tall order for a novel allegorizing ideas from literary theory in the lives of a group of undergraduates.

Fresh Complaint lacks a unifying framework, which is no surprise: Many of its stories seem to have been written in downtime between novels. Across the book’s 30-year span, Eugenides has tried on a few different styles and voices. Thematically, the collection is all over the place. Reading the stories blind, I wouldn’t necessarily conclude they were the work of the same author. Beyond the pleasures on offer in a few of the strongest stories, Fresh Complaint may be most interesting not for what it tells us about Eugenides as a writer, but for the view it affords us of an author absorbing various formal and topical trends at play in the past three decades of American fiction.

“Capricious Garden,” the earliest of the stories, is an experiment in point of view. Four characters have wound up at a country house in Ireland: two divorced middle-aged men, friends from university; and two young female tourists, only recently acquainted, staying the night as they pass through town. Sean, the owner of the house, has a crush on Amy, who also has a crush on him. But Maria also has a crush on Amy, and Malcolm just wants to catch up with his old friend Sean, and commiserate about divorce. There’s a confession, a lie, and a few awkward attempts at trysts. The action is slight, the bits about picking and cooking artichokes are tedious, but the alternating perspective, shifting among the four characters and attuned to what they’re noticing and failing to notice about each other, is what drives the story. No wonder the novel Eugenides would publish five years later was a triumph in point of view. What’s more beguiling about The Virgin Suicides, the doomed Lisbon sisters or the collective voice of the now grown suburban boys who tell their story?

There the experiments in point of view would stop (mostly: Middlesex does shift between first and third person, to comic effect). Four stories from the 1990s display Eugenides entering a conventional storytelling mode. There is the weave of present action and backstory typical of fiction you read in The New Yorker, where most of these pieces appeared. It’s largely in how noticeable the stitching is between present and past that the stories fail or succeed.

“Baster” is the most striking of the ’90s works. It’s about artificial insemination, a subject of extreme relevance to anybody around the age of 35, as Eugenides was when he published it. The man who narrates the story takes his time revealing himself, which makes its punch line finale harder to anticipate, though I imagine it’s a clever move that’s been aped enough now by screenwriters to read like a cliché. Beyond its twist ending, the story is a portrait of an ex-girlfriend, a tale of two yuppies, complete with dollar values for each of their IRAs ($175,000 for her; $254,000 for him). As a vision of New York, it’s about two steps removed from Sex in the City, if self-consciously so.

Perhaps New York never fired Eugenides’s imagination the way his native Michigan did. Several of the stories in Fresh Complaint have a travelogue quality. “Air Mail” follows a post-collegiate tourist, Mitchell Grammaticus (who would reappear 15 years later in The Marriage Plot), through a bout of dysentery on an extended trip through India and Southeast Asia. The white-kid-goes-abroad story was a staple of ’80s and ’90s, the fictionalized, misbegotten quest for enlightenment abroad at the dawn of globalization.

“The Oracular Vulva” is an outtake from Middlesex set in Indonesia, in a village where men and women are segregated and only meet once a month, strictly for the purposes of procreation. At night they use the skulls of their ancestors as pillows. Dr. Peter Luce, the expert in hermaphroditism who in Middlesex advocates castrating the narrator, appears here doing fieldwork on the tribe and their sexual customs: “Dawat boys live with their mothers until they’re seven years old, at which point they come to live with the men. For the next eight years the the boys are coerced into fellating their elders. With the denigration of the vagina in Dawat belief comes the exaltation of the male sexual parts, and especially of semen, which is held to be an elixir of stunning nutritive power. In order to become men, to become warriors, boys must ingest as much semen as possible, and this, nightly, daily, hourly, they do.” This intriguing frame is the occasion for the recounting of Luce’s career and his rivalry with a younger academic who disputed his doctrine that gender identity is fixed at an early age. Within the context of this collection, “The Oracular Vulva” highlights how much more dense with ideas Eugenides’s novels are compared with his occasional outings into the slice-of-life short story.

The least distinguished (“most disposable” might be a better way of putting it) stories in Fresh Complaint center on middle-aged men in various states of precarity. There’s a formerly promising poet who colludes in embezzling from the vanity publisher who employs him; a musician deep in debt because he’s been missing payments for years on his ill-advisedly purchased clavichord; a radio consultant who’s been kicked out of his house for cheating on his wife. The last of these characters has adopted a Texas drawl though he grew up in Michigan; otherwise they’re hard to tell apart.

Two stories, “Complainers” and “Timeshare,” consider characters in old age. They make for grim reading and have uncharacteristically meandering plotlines, but certain images stick in the mind because Eugenides has done some acute and empathetic observation of his elders. I won’t soon forget the narrator of “Timeshare” looking in a mirror to see his father standing above a toilet punching himself in the belly because he can no longer urinate normally; or the 90-year-old woman slipping from her walker with a look on her face mixing surprise and serenity, as when she’d fallen underwater from a boat decades before. But in between these moments the prose often reads like mere connective tissue.

That’s not a problem in the title story, which dates from this year. “Fresh Complaint” fails in a way that points to why Eugenides fiction succeeds when it does and why the sprawl of the novel suits him better than cramped spaces of the short story. Prakrti, a 16-year-old child of Indian immigrants, contrives to sleep with Matthew, a married physics professor, and then accuse him of statutory rape, all in order to ruin her parents’ plans to land her in an arranged marriage. As plots go, it’s a novel variation on the theme of entrapment (never the most compelling of themes), but it isn’t realistic. Yet Prakrti and Matthew are both realistically drawn as decent people, to the point that it strains belief that she’d come up with this plan, let alone go through with it, or that he’d risk his family on a girl who approaches him posing as an 19-year-old undergraduate and doing so cluelessly. Within the sweep of a novel, regular people can wander down long paths to strange places you’d never ordinarily expect to find them. Have them do so in a story and it’s either a trap or a stunt.

Fresh Complaint: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Short-Story Sideline