Book review: Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides
Like certain comets, books by Jeffrey Eugenides appear only rarely. Since 1993 he has dropped a novel a decade: The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and most recently The Marriage Plot.
He breaks that decennial cycle with Fresh Complaint, a book of stories. Perhaps this will usher in a new period of volubility. We'll see the publication of his left-handed writing across genres: letters, a book of travel essays, an etiquette primer. Or not.
Eugenides found a critical and popular audience early. At this stage one cannot pick up a new book from him without considering W.H. Auden's observation that our judgments of books by established writers aren't merely aesthetic.
"In addition to any literary merit it may have, a new book by him has a historic interest for us as the act of a person in whom we have long been interested," Auden wrote. He is not only a novelist, that is, but "a character in our biography".
There is bad and good news about Fresh Complaint. The bad news is that there's nothing especially intense or inventive here, no sign that short fiction is the fertile row Eugenides should have been hoeing all along.
The good news is how solid these stories are anyway. Two or three are excellent; none are total misses. Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, Eugenides writes like a man who is enjoying himself. The feeling is contagious.
He's a consistently perceptive writer, so much so that when you put this book down it's like leaving one of those movies that Windex-freshens the panes of your mind.
The 10 stories in Fresh Complaint were written across the expanse of his career. One of the earliest, "Baster," appeared in The New Yorker in 1996. Several others first appeared in The New Yorker, as well, though others ran in Conjunctions, The Yale Review and The Gettysburg Review.
In "The Marriage Plot," one of Eugenides' characters noted the following about depression: "The smarter you were, the worse it was. The sharper your brain, the more it cut you up."
Many of Eugenides' short stories are about mental self-mutilation. He writes with elegiac wit about middle-class, mostly educated men and women whose lives have begun to grind them down.
They have shabby kitchens and get insufficient sleep. Their careers are stalled and their roofs leak. One couple has a Beck poster covering a hole in the wall over a crib, a hole they can't afford to repair. Loneliness and despair are barely kept at bay.
Eugenides pushes these scenarios to extremes that are comic and devastating. One failed academic turns to embezzlement, and is found out. Another man, whose wife has left him, considers suicide without conviction. When he unburdens himself about his problems, he ruins a dinner party. No one wants to absorb his aria of distress.
The comedy in these stories derives from the fact that these people are not quite ready for this world or at least not ready for what this world has become. Innocence everywhere has been trampled.
In a paragraph that can serve as a keynote, Eugenides writes about how the behaviour of our chieftains trickles down and taints daily life. Noting how Donald H. Rumsfeld fled responsibility for Abu Ghraib, for example, he writes: "In the streets, people got the point. Victory was what counted, power, muscularity, doublespeak if necessary. You saw it in the way people drove, in the way they cut you off, gave you the finger, cursed. Women and men alike, showing rage and toughness. Everyone knew what he wanted and how to get it. Everybody you met was nobody's fool."
Two stories in Fresh Complaint peel off from his novels. The Oracular Vulva (the title comes from the name of a fictional Playboy magazine column) is about a researcher in the field of intersexuality, the topic that fed Middlesex.
In "Air Mail" we meet Mitchell, the spiritual young fellow from "The Marriage Plot". Here, Mitchell is battling the trots in Thailand. Does Eugenides write memorably about diarrhoea? Of course he does:
"The dysentery had made him intimate with his insides; he had a clear sense of his stomach, of his colon; he felt the smooth muscular piping that constituted him. The combustion began high in his intestines. Then it worked its way along, like an egg swallowed by a snake, expanding, stretching the tissue, until, with a series of shudders, it dropped, and he exploded into water."
He writes just as vividly about nonelemental things. Rodney, the protagonist of "Early Music," purchases an antiquated clavichord that will financially ruin his family. About it, we read:
"The Hass clavichord wasn't as thrilled as Rodney. The clavichord complained a lot. It didn't want to go back to 1761. It had done its work and wanted to rest, to retire, like the audience. The tangents broke and had to be repaired. A new key went dead every night."
This book delivers many small corkscrews of feeling. For all of its interest in failure and misbehaviour, it is threaded with a strong moral sensibility. Eugenides' miserable bipeds want to behave well but there are so many obstacles in their way.
One of these stories is about two women, old friends, and the favourite book they read and reread. "Sometimes books come into your life for a reason, Della," one of these women says. "It's really strange."
Eugenides has written life-altering books of that sort, and Fresh Complaint isn't one of them. But its charm and insight are real, and formidable.