Jeffrey Eugenides' Fresh Complaint short stories are begging to be novels

Fresh Complaint is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides’ first collection of short stories.
Fresh Complaint is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides’ first collection of short stories.PHOTO: 4TH ESTATE



Jeffrey Eugenides

4th Estate/ Hardcover/ 304 pages/ $35.72/Books Kinokuniya

Here's a fresh complaint for you: In his first collection of short stories, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides demonstrates - ironically - that he is better off as a novelist.

As a novelist, he is that rare thing: One who is able to take a conceit and run with it, experimenting with form and genre, and adept at letting a formal idea unspool until it is taken to its deepest conclusion.

His last novel, 2011's The Marriage Plot, took the idea of an anti-romance novel and pushed it to its depressive limits. Middlesex (2002), which nabbed him the Pulitzer for Fiction, reworked the myth of Tiresias in the form of a modern bildungsroman and family epic, with knowing winks towards Ovid, Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Foucault.

Reading the 10 assorted pieces in Fresh Complaint, one is unable to shake the feeling that many of these were out-takes from longer works or aborted novels.

Even when these stories work, they often lack the punch of a tightly constructed narrative or leave you hungry for more.

Airmail, a rather meticulous chronicling of a Western tourist's dysentery in Asia, in which diarrhoea is mistaken for nirvana, is a case in point - a keenly observed contrivance that does not really go anywhere. Timeshare, a litany of investing and renovation woes, as an adult son tries to reconnect with his parents, is another.

The collection, comprising writing spanning the 1990s and 2000s, is bookended by two new stories dated 2017. Opener Complainers is an account of the long friendship between two women. When 88-year-old Della is diagnosed with dementia and sent to a nursing home, the much younger Cathy visits and ends up "jailbreaking" her friend from the home.

Running parallel to this action is a book that both women loved, titled Two Old Women, based on an old Native American legend of two grandmothers abandoned by their tribe to die, but surviving on their wits and grit.

While there is much to like about this message of elderly female self-sufficiency and confidence, the tale itself dodders at a walker's pace, lacking the kind of polished flair that grabs you from the first page of an Eugenides novel. Consider, for instance, the first line from Complainers: Coming up the drive in the rental car, Cathy sees the sign and has to laugh. "Wyndham Falls. Gracious Retirement Living."

In contrast, here is the unforgettable first line from The Virgin Suicides (1993): On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife driver was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.

The closing story, Fresh Complaint, is told from alternating viewpoints - those of a married physics professor and a 16-year-old Indian-American student looking to escape an arranged marriage - and hinges upon sexual misconduct that seems neither surprising nor particularly illuminating about gender or cultural relations, beyond each being a means to an end.

Still, Eugenides on an "off" day or slightly below his game is a lot better than many lesser writers.

Standout Early Music, about a failed musician struggling to pay the instalments on his expensive antique clavichord, quietly teases out the simmering resentment in a marriage and the sour notes of broken dreams.

Find The Bad Guy is a variation on the theme, charting the panicked misdemeanours of a husband whose wife has taken out a restraining order against him.

Meanwhile, The Oracular Vulva follows a famous sexologist on a field trip to a tribal community that practised strange - a relative notion, Eugenides never lets us forget here - sexual rituals. With its exploration of gender identity, intersex status and mores, Oracular could have been an interesting spin-off from Middlesex.

Such is the leisurely set-up and slow-burn quality of Eugenides' writing here that one truly wishes he had the space and length to develop each little world, so that they brimmed with the life, vitality and detail of his other work, rather than suffer being cramped into the unsuitable container of short fiction.

Perhaps, what unites the stories in this decent decad is a sense of life always throwing up one thing or another; the messiness in life, reflected in loose baggy imperfect art.

If you like this, read: Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber & Faber, 2016, $27.31, Books Kinokuniya), 10 stories that explore discrimination - gender, sexual, racial and more - with heartbreaking clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'Short stories that beg to be novels'. Print Edition | Subscribe