Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides review: an uneven collection
For a collection written over such a long period, the stories are strikingly repetitive in structure
Jeffrey Eugenides: ‘a talented prose writer, his dialogue is often a joy to read, and he’s gifted with a real understanding of psychology’. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The stories in Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book Fresh Complaint have been collected over a period of almost 30 years. If any themes appear to unify the book, then, they are not just the motifs of a single collection but the sustained concerns of an entire career, from before the publication of Eugenides’ first novel The Virgin Suicides in 1993 until after his most recent book, The Marriage Plot. Throughout the period represented by these stories, Eugenides returns again and again to themes of gender, sexuality and, perhaps most predominantly, money.
Finance rears its head in this collection not in the form of hardship, but of petty consumerism. In two different stories, written 20 years apart, husbands make dubious investments in Florida properties to the consternation of their wives. In Early Music, a married couple tries to avoid phone calls from a debt collection agency, having borrowed $27,000 (€23k) to buy a clavichord. In a story from 2008 titled Great Experiment, a literary editor named Kendall decides to embezzle from his avaricious employer, in part because he dreams of owning “a heartbreakingly beautiful forest-green Range Rover”.
Eugenides is impressively attuned to the psychology of late American capitalism, and his depictions of debt-fuelled property investments in the late 1990s and early 2000s now have the value of recognisable prescience. But he’s unwilling to share these insights with his characters, who are left unaware of the systems in which they find themselves trapped, and incapable of articulating much response. Many lapse into nostalgia, longing for some unspecified time when things were better. Kendall reads Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and asks: “where had things gone wrong and how could we find our way back?”
The drive to make America great again is evidently not new. But we never believe that Eugenides shares the impulse, and it’s frustrating to watch him keep his formidable critical intelligence to himself. In the collection’s opening story Complainers, the author continually holds his protagonists Cathy and Della at arm’s length, never giving them the capacity for original thought. At one point Cathy recalls her son using the word “Cartesian” to describe a film, and Eugenides helpfully adds: “Cathy didn’t get it.” The author can’t resist his urge to gesture toward Cartesian philosophy, but nor can he bring himself to credit his characters with the ability to understand it. In Air Mail, the collection’s finest story, globetrotter Mitchell is briefly granted a revelatory insight into human nature, only to find that some insights are too profound to live through.
Eugenides’ intentions become more ambiguous as the stories turn toward sexuality. His male characters often rehearse sexist cliches and lust after pubescent girls, but the author’s attitude is not straightforwardly satirical. When one character publishes a breakthrough academic article on gender development, we’re told that women start spontaneously showing up “at his apartment wearing not a hell of a lot”. To believe this is frankly to deny my entire understanding of the world. The final story in the collection tests our disbelief in a yet more uncomfortable way, depicting an Indian-American teenage girl who decides to make a rape claim against a visiting professor in order to escape an arranged marriage. Maybe no subject, however improbable, is off-limits for a great artist, but Eugenides badly miscalculates the moral centre of this story, producing something by turns troubling and implausible.
For a collection written over such a long period, the stories are strikingly repetitive in structure. Of ten, all but two open with a scene in the story’s present and then follow that with a second section of flashback or backstory. The second sections of these stories open with remarkably similar sentences, beginning with such phrases as “Five years ago”, “Back then”, “Up until three years ago”, “For sixteen years”, and “Eleven months ago”. Far be it from me to denigrate the time-honoured method of introducing backstory after an opening scene, but the repetition can begin to feel limiting, as if Eugenides is impatient to get through the story’s superficial dramatic action and onto the good stuff, which all seems to have happened in the past. Maybe the novel, a more capacious form, suits this sensibility better. In Complainers, a character suffering from dementia observes that “nothing seems to happen, nothing in the present, anyway”. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it rang a bell.
Eugenides is a talented prose writer, his dialogue is often a joy to read, and he’s gifted with a real understanding of psychology. Nonetheless, Fresh Complaint is an uneven collection, frustrating at times, and ultimately lacking the innovation and subtlety of the author’s novels.
Sally Rooney is the author of “Conversations With Friends” (Faber)