The everyday gets a makeover in “Fresh Complaint,” but not the kind it expected. In his new collection of short stories, Jeffrey Eugenides, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Middlesex” and “The Virgin Suicides,” takes the banal, routine lives of a cast of restless, deeply flawed characters and throws them completely out of equilibrium.
In a collection of stories written between 1988 and 2017, Eugenides’s standout pieces are his most recent, the stories “Complainers,” which opens the book, and “Fresh Complaints,” which closes it. “Complainers” is an evocative exploration of the persisting friendship between two women, one middle-aged, and one elderly and addled by dementia, who bond over their mutual dissatisfaction with the lack of intimacy in their lives and their shared love of reading. The other, “Fresh Complaint,” follows a teenage girl desperate to escape the expectations of her conservative Indian family at any and all cost—even if it means destroying someone else’s life along the way. It is in these stories that Eugenides’s narrative talents shine, switching from character to character effortlessly, speaking from diverse perspectives with eloquence and accuracy. In these stories, his female protagonists are strong and multifaceted, more than victims, playthings, or furniture for the larger plot.
Unfortunately, not every story is as nuanced in its take on gender roles. Women in the pieces “Timeshare,” “Early Music,” and “Great Experiment,” do little more than serve as nuisances, housewives, or both, for the plot-driving male protagonists. A common theme throughout the book seems to be the changing role of women in the home, and yet the book speaks on female empowerment more through a lens of nostalgia for the past than praise for progress. Some of this can be explained by the characters through whom the stories are told, mostly male, old-fashioned, and married, but, even in this context, it feels a bit out of place. Three of the stories describe predatory relationships between an older man and a younger woman and with the exception of the aforementioned “Fresh Complaint,” the women involved are lazily fleshed out, existing solely as objects of desire to be used sexually and emotionally used by fragile, insecure male, and in one case female, characters.
Consistent throughout each and every story in the collection is the beauty and versatility of Eugenides’s style of writing. He flits easily between humor, reflection, anxiety, and lust: He conveys whichever emotion he needs to with graceful diction and an eye for detail. One haunting example is in the story “Air Mail,” in which a young college student, Mitchell, comes down with dysentery on an island off of Thailand and fasts with the intention to heal himself and, later, to propel himself towards a state of total enlightenment. Eugenides writes of Mitchell’s epiphany, “He could make out wavelengths of the moonlight. He’d managed to slow his mind down enough to perceive that. The moonlight would speed up a second, growing brighter, then it would slow down, becoming dim. It pulsed.” His fluid sentences flow into one another like tributaries, carrying each plot to its twisting conclusion.
At its best, the collection soars in its striking twists on the mundane—for example, a family man’s spiral into debt over his desire to own a clavichord—compelling the reader with elements of absurdity that do not fail to entertain. There are places, however, in which the author’s experimentation strays from the unique into the uncomfortable, and where a few of his stories fall prey to the dated, cookie-cutter confines of the suburbia they inhabit, most likely due in large part to the change in context between the time he wrote them and now. When Jeffrey Eugenides hits his stride, his deft narration and poetic detail coalesce into moments of pure magic, and it is for these moments that “Fresh Complaint” is worth the read.
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