Jeffrey Eugenides, best known for his novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, has earned a reputation as somewhat of a heavyweight in American literature. His last book was The Marriage Plot, published in 2011, a novel which followed three college students during the year 1982. Many parts of that novel were loosely based on the author’s own college experiences, in particular those portions relating to the character Mitchell. This is interesting to note, as in the new collection Fresh Complaint, published this year by Fourth Estate, Mitchell makes a brief appearance as the protagonist in a short story called ‘Air Mail.’ He is resting on a remote island somewhere in Asia, in the middle of his years of wandering, suffering from severe bouts of dysentery. His parents are worried about him, but he believes that he is about to reach enlightenment. Later, believing himself to be fully recovered, he feasts on his first solid meal in weeks, only to find himself needing the toilet urgently later on when he is swimming. I tell you this ending only because it sheds a different light on the cover of the Australian hardback edition of the book, which features a man floating in the ocean…
If some readers found The Marriage Plot pretentious, they would certainly be annoyed by the contents of this short story collection. The collection is distinctively American in its focus, and many of the stories seem to lack any clear theme to the antipodean reader. Their narrators are highly solipsistic, often badly behaved, and sometimes downright boring. Though I finished the entire book, I did at times find myself counting to see how many pages there were to go. A great disappointment, given how taken I have been with Eugenides’ three other books!
Perhaps this was a case of cultures clashing, but I struggled to care about the short stories, or to derive any greater sense of meaning from reading them. While well-written (at times to the point of being obfuscating and thus defeating the point), the stories seemed to lack directness and a sense of immediacy. In particular, stories like ‘The Oracular Vulva’ (which was alarmingly like Hanya Yanigahara’s disturbing novel The People in the Trees) and ‘Capricious Gardens’ appeared to be attempting literariness for its own sake.
The collection does start strong, with the story ‘The Complainers’, a simple and understated piece about friendship and aging. There is much to be taken away from this story. But overall, the collection just seems to be much of the same, and this blandness was ultimately unsatisfying. I think I’ll stick to Australian short stories from now on.
Fresh Complaint is available now through Fourth Estate / HarperCollins Australia