Although we’re not lucky enough to be treated to a new Jeffrey Eugenides novel quite yet – they only come along once a decade and it’s just six years since his last, The Marriage Plot – he has provided us with a short story collection (his first) to tide us over in the meantime.
The collection comprises 10 tales, eight of which have been previously published elsewhere) that span the breadth of his career. The earliest, the Ireland-set Capricious Gardens, was written back to 1988 (that’s five years before he published his debut, The Virgin Suicides); while those that bookend the collection, “Complainers” and “Fresh Complaint”, are new, dated this year. It is overall is a welcome reminder of both the potential excellence to come and the joys of Eugenides’s previous achievements.
Fans of his novels will recognise a couple of the characters herein. In “Air Mail”, The Marriage Plot’s Mitchell Grammaticus, a young American student, is struck down with amoebic dysentery while searching for enlightenment on a remote Thai island. Meanwhile, Dr Peter Luce, the sexologist from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex, takes centre stage in “The Oracular Vulva” – a tale that resonates with echoes of Hanya Yanagihara’s unsettling first novel The People in the Trees – a “ruined career” having sent him off to pursue field research amongst the (fictional) “Dawat” people, where sexual activity between prepubescent boys and the older men in the community is commonplace. Each is a take on the culture clash between East and West, Eugenides’s privileged white male protagonists ill-prepared for what they encounter in the course of their travels.
It’s a theme that resurfaces again in the final story – that from which the collection takes its title – in which Matthew, an academic who’s married and the father of two, has no idea that the supposedly spontaneous tryst between him and a (much) younger, beautiful student is actually a carefully planned seduction by a girl looking for a way out of the arranged marriage her Indian parents have planned for her. It certainly offers a twist on the classic tale of a middle-aged man whose life is destroyed by his concupiscence – “That chronic, inflammatory complaint” – but there’s something slightly uncomfortable about Eugenides’s take on the oppressed woman in this instance.
It’s not that he can’t write female characters; “Complainers” stands out from the rest as a moving and warmly sympathetic account of a long friendship between two women, Cathy and Della. The younger of the two, Cathy, springs Della from hospital in her old age, taking her home and caring for her in a way that initially eluded Della’s own family. By and large, it’s Eugenides’s men who are more often painted as victims. Their “middle-class squalor” – thwarted ambitions, unfulfilling relationships and money worries – is a recurring theme.
Although admittedly there’s nothing in Fresh Complaint to rival the fineness of his novels – they undoubtedly remain Eugenides’s uncontested superior form – there is much to enjoy and admire; notably the fact there’s not a dud in the collection, an achievement that’s harder to pull off that it might seem.
‘Fresh Complaint’ by Jeffrey Eugenides is published by Fourth Estate, £16.99
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