Jeffrey Eugenides, Great American Novelist, Turns to the Story

Jeffrey Eugenides, Great American Novelist, Turns to the Story

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George Wylesol

FRESH COMPLAINT
Stories
By Jeffrey Eugenides
285 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27

In 1993, soon after the publication of Jeffrey Eugenides’s first novel, “The Virgin Suicides,” my sly and thoughtful high school English teacher handed me a copy. In those days, my knowledge of contemporary literature ended with “The Catcher in the Rye,” so Eugenides’s book came as a thunderclap. Here was a modern writer using gorgeous and specific prose to write about the longing of adolescent girls like me. A smarter reader may have balked at the objectification of the somewhat indistinguishable Lisbon sisters, or worried about the hushed beatification of the vulnerable young white female body; a more savvy reader might have winced at the book’s literalizing of the male gaze, as the story is told in first-person plural by the boys who love the girls from afar. But I was dazzled by its grace and humor and shimmering beauty, by the fact that the world of female adolescence, scorned and condescended to as it has always been, could be considered so seriously in literature.

Eugenides’s second novel, “Middlesex,” was published nine years later, in 2002. It is a gleefully written bildungsroman picaresque, as maximalist as novels come, and it swoops through eight decades of a family’s history in the voice of an intersex man named Cal, born Calliope. The book was rapturously received, sold millions of copies, won the Pulitzer Prize and made Eugenides as much of a household name as any writer of literary fiction can be. When his third novel, “The Marriage Plot,” was published another nine years later, in 2011, the furor around “Middlesex” had just died down. The third book, about three young Brown students all at a loss in the year after graduation, was tighter and darker and more serious than his first two.

In the quarter century since “The Virgin Suicides,” I would have sworn that Eugenides had also published multiple short story collections. I would have been wrong, fooled by the excellent anthology he edited, “My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead” (2008), and the stories and novel excerpts he has placed in publications like The New Yorker over the years. “Fresh Complaint” is his debut collection, with stories written between 1988 and 2017, all in different shades of realism, most of which range through a series of failures, from marriages (“Find the Bad Guy”) to creative careers (“Early Music”) to fraud (“Great Experiment”) to retirement schemes (“Timeshare”).

When a reader encounters a story completed recently, then goes on to the next and finds it was written 20 years earlier, the natural question is: Why in the world is a story collection appearing only now? The nine-year gap between each of his novels signals that Eugenides is perhaps a slow writer; or, maybe, the story form is not the most instinctive one for him, seized only when he’s overcome with inspiration or experimenting with ideas for a longer narrative. Some stories do read as outtakes from his novels. My favorite, “Air Mail,” features the character Mitchell Grammaticus from “The Marriage Plot,” although the story was written a good 15 years before the novel appeared in the world. Another, “The Oracular Vulva,” is an offshoot of “Middlesex”; in the story (which at one point regurgitates an entire page of the novel), Dr. Peter Luce, the sexologist who treats and pathologizes Cal in the novel, has an unsavory night of sleep among a tribe on the Casuarina coast where he is studying a strange culture of pedophilia. This story is the least distinguished in the collection, with its thin narrative, swampy backstory and too-cursory moral investigation at its core. And despite the title, which refers to the book that made Luce’s name, there are no soothsaying vaginas. Alas.

Eugenides has always been a sharp and exacting writer, and nearly every one of the stories in this collection is teachable, a model of its own kind of Swiss-clock craftsmanship. You can imagine an undergraduate writing class bowing their heads to parse the beautiful parallels of “Complainers,” in which two aging women, overlooked and underloved in the separate twilights of their lives, care for each other as ferociously as the characters in a book they’ve both loved for decades, a novel in which two old Native American women survive on their own for a winter after being abandoned by their tribe. A writer could learn a great deal about how good people can become enmeshed in their own wicked deeds from the excellent story “Fresh Complaint,” in which a middle-aged physicist is sexually entrapped by a young woman desperate to be released from an arranged marriage. The manic “Baster,” in which a successful but unpartnered woman gives a party to impregnate herself with donated sperm, is a swift lesson on dramatic irony.

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Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

Still, teachability may be the second-highest praise one can give a story; the very best short stories are profoundly unteachable, coming to a reader from a place beyond obvious craft, envoys from the lightning-shocked world of magic. Such rare work haunts the mind. A character will enter your dreams through a hidden door and begin to conduct them; one bright image will strike the internal eye repeatedly until it becomes a visual refrain to your days. Great work lingers in the reader beyond understanding.

Of the 10 stories in Fresh Complaint, two have reverberated this way in my mind in the month since I first read the book, a pretty good score for any collection of short fiction. The first is “Air Mail,” a funny and vivid story of a young traveler on a Thai island undergoing such severe amoebic dysentery that he enters a state of religious ecstasy; the second is “Capricious Gardens,” which holds the unshakeable images of giant armfuls of artichokes in a dim country kitchen and the chalky relic of St. Augustine’s finger bone. Curiously, both stories were written pre-“Middlesex”: “Air Mail” in 1996 and “Capricious Gardens” in 1988. What these two stories share with “The Virgin Suicides” is something that seems to have fallen out of Eugenides’s later work — something the brilliant American writer Joy Williams calls “an anagogical level,” a sort of spiritual ascent, or internal longing made manifest. Eugenides’s more recent efforts, novels and stories alike, no longer seem to embody spiritual yearning, but rather hold it at arm’s length for gently pointed ridicule.

After his three stunning novels and almost a quarter century firmly enthroned as one of this country’s most beloved writers, it would be strange if Eugenides hadn’t changed and grown as a writer. Nobody could blame him if he eventually found faith or spiritual hunger a childish thing to be put away. But, at least for this one deeply secular reader in this fractured and worrisome time, I have begun to feel an unappeasable longing for longing. By this, I mean a yearning toward the ineffable mysteries of human existence that the writers of the most searching fiction, when they stretch themselves as far as they can go, can — just about — touch. These days, the lack of this quality in a book feels as much of a moral problem as it is an aesthetic one. The stories in “Fresh Complaint” give the impression that they fell, already ripe, into Jeffrey Eugenides’s hands. What a shame, when we know how far he can stretch.

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