In the perfectly paced, middle-aged, middle-class drama that completes Jeffrey Eugenides’s first collection of short stories, a famous physics professor “watches his life implode” after an ill-advised one-night stand with a high school student who has a trick up her sleeve. We’ve already been treated to a country music radio consultant with a restraining order against his family, and a music teacher about to get a visit from the bailiff for defaulting on the payments for his clavichord. It’s fair to say that, in Fresh Complaint, men are well intentioned enough, but also pathetic and faintly absurd.
There are plenty of women in these stories, written over the past 22 years, but Eugenides is particularly adept at piercing the darker, unsaid inner thoughts of husbands and fathers. Charlie is, as he freely admits in Find the Bad Guy, a “defective husband” to a woman who only married him for a green card. He works out – too late – the key to a good relationship. “At breakfast you pass the jam. You ask: ‘How was your day?’ and pretend to care. Stuff like that really works.”
It’s this kind of enjoyable wry wit that makes Fresh Complaint so entertaining. There are probably a few too many occasions when ostensibly comfortable, middle-class lives are thrown into crisis by bad choices, provoked by money or sex – moments when you want to tell these people to grow up. But maybe that’s Eugenides’s point. They can’t.
So when the author ventures out of such safe ground, more interesting things happen. Air Mail was selected by editor E Annie Proulx for The Best American Short Stories collection back in 1997, and while it has aged well – the gap year protagonist, Mitchell, writes tortuously overthought letters to his parents back home rather than FaceTiming them – it must be the only story to begin with a detailed description of the horrors of dysentery (“with a series of shudders, it dropped, and he exploded into water”) and end with homespun enlightenment.
Dedicated Eugenides watchers will recognise Mitchell from The Marriage Plot, and some of the problems with that 2011 novel have their genesis here: you can’t tell whether the author is mocking Mitchell’s new age ramblings or sympathising with them. There are also seeds of 2002’s Middlesex in the brilliantly titled The Oracular Vulva, from 1999: both explore intersexual characteristics, in this case in the depths of the jungle where a researcher is trying not to submit to the local custom – being pleasured by young boys.
The story ends – and the overall impression of Eugenides the short story writer is that he’s a fine exponent of the satisfying denouement – with the heartbreaking “Keep going. Maybe she’d meet someone out there, maybe she wouldn’t. A friend.” Fresh Complaint is a bit like that – fleeting visits from characters with whom you’d like to spend a little time. But not too much.