Jeffrey Eugenides’s Fresh Complaint serves to fill that large, aching gap between his novels. Most of the stories in the collection were lifted from The New Yorker or plucked from literary journals, with publishing dates spanning anywhere from 1989 to 2017. It’s like a retrospective. Readers have the benefit of watching Eugenides develop as a writer while getting a sense of major themes that run throughout his work.
Eugenides fans will enjoy revisiting characters from his other works. Mitchell, from “The Marriage Plot” (2011), shows up in “Air Mail” to fight a bout of dysentery in the Gulf of Siam, and Dr. Luce, from “Middlesex” (2002), appears in the aptly named “The Oracular Vulva,” on a research mission in the jungle.
Both of these narratives focus on travel, a topic that has fascinated Eugenides throughout his career. After graduating his BA, Eugenides spent a year travelling across Europe and volunteering with mother Teresa in Calcutta. “I began trying to write about these events at the time I was experiencing them, way back in 1982,” Eugenides tells The New Yorker. “I tried again many times over the years”. No doubt, Fresh Complaint is part of Eugenides’s effort to explore the meaning of travel and what happens to an individual, spiritually and intellectually, when placed in alternate contexts and challenged by the unfamiliar and unforeseen
Mitchell and Dr. Luce aside, characters in this collection tend to face common dissatisfactions, i.e. money, love, friendship, aging, though their idiosyncratic behaviours and atypical life decisions transform familiar grievances over life’s greatest drags into fresh complaints.
The collection is filled with fathers who wish to do better by their families financially, but lack talent, luck, or the right combination of the two, to do so. In “Great Experiment,” Kendall, once praised as a gifted poet, enters middle age as an underpaid editor at a publishing house. In order to raise the funds to renovate his family home, he hatches a risky plan to evade taxes.
In “Early Music,” Rodney, father of two, also faces the disappointment of broken ambitions and tight finances. Rodney comes to terms with his lack of musical talent, while trying to stay true to his passion for music. He defends himself against debt collectors who threaten to claim his clavichord.
“Sometimes you thought you heard the music,” thinks Rodney, “especially when you were young, and then you spent the rest of your life trying to reproduce the sound”.
Rodney’s sense of longing prevails throughout the collection. Ideal beginnings are complicated and tarnished by time. Relationships break apart. Wives reject adulterous husbands. Friends turn away from friends. In the particularly memorable “Baster,” poor Wally, deeply in love with the glamorous Tomasina, must watch as she becomes pregnant with a donor’s sperm.
Reducing these stories to single sentence summaries makes them seem all doom and gloom, but if there is anything that unites these characters, it is their optimism in the face of life’s travails. In “Find the Bad Guy,” Charlie reflects on his broken marriage: “we found each other so long before we lost each other”. The glass is always half full. Eudgenides’s characters maintain steadfast beliefs in their capacity to fix things.
Like all Eugenides books, Fresh Complaint is compulsively readable. Characters are equal parts misguided and insightful, determined by circumstance and self-determining. Collectively, they express the comedy that hums through life’s tragedies.