Fresh Complaint: Stories by Jeffrey Eugenides (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 304 pp)

Born in Detroit, Michigan on March 8, 1960, Jeffrey Eugenides is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer. As an undergraduate, he attended Brown University and later earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University. Eugenides received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Fellowship for a short story he wrote in 1986. In 2002, his novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. Eugenides works on faculty at Princeton University’s Program in Creative writing and lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter.

The Knot in Your Stomach

A signal of life, outside of biological factors such as breathing, eating, and excreting, emerges in our social circumstances. Aside from many physical differences—some large, some small, depending on species—humanness requires social relationships. We are creative. We congregate and innovate from tree houses to urban jungles. But most of all, our relationships spiral out of control in dramatic fashion.

While I hesitate to paint with the widest possible brush, I’ll use a fine-point brush to suggest almost everyone has a detail eating away at them. For some, a stressful situation at work threatens the necessary income to sustain a way of life. For others, a friend of a friend calls you a name. How rude. In all, our worries and stresses sit in our gut, roiling in the bile just waiting to be expelled in a sulfurous cloud of toxicity in our social settings.

One could say, we live with fresh complaints.

Queue Jeffrey Eugenides’ Fresh Complaint, a collection of short stories written over the course of Eugenides’ illustrious career to date.

While each story illustrates characters in a variety of professions and life stages, Eugenides threads the motif of fear, stress, and urgency throughout Fresh Complaint.

Economic Urgency

For some stories, the urgency operates through economic circumstances. Consider the family falling behind on payments for a lavish instrument:

“Of course, because of Rebecca’s ‘job,’ she couldn’t take care of the twins full-time. They were forced to hire a babysitter, whose weekly salary came to more than Rebecca brought in by selling the Mice ‘n’ Warm mice (which was why they could pay only the minimum amount on their credit cards, driving them even further into debt). Rebecca had offered many times to give up the mice and get a job that paid a steady salary. But Rodney, who knew what it was to love a useless thing, always said, ‘Give it another few years’” (97).

Or, a family down on its luck after many lucrative years looking to turn around an oceanside hotel:

“Meanwhile, I learned from my brother that my parents were living off savings, my father’s IRA, and credit from the banks. Finally, he found this place, Palm Bay Resort, a ruin by the sea, and convinced another savings and loan to lend him the money to get it running again. He’d provide the labor and know-how and, when people started coming, he’d pay off the S&L and the place would be his” (114).

Relational Urgency

For other characters, stress and drama emerge from relational matters. In one such instance, a woman quickly passing her prime child bearing years looks back on the many hook-ups and the strategic decisions around those connections which lead to a childless present.

“She thought about them, the little children she never had. They were lined at the windows of a ghostly school bus, faces pressed against the glass, huge-eyed, moist-lashed. They looked out, calling, ‘We understand. It wasn’t the right time. We understand. We do’” (66).

Or in another instance, a man considering how to follow the temporary restraining order filed against him.

“I’m not supposed to come any closer than fifty feet to my lovely wife, Johanna. It’s an emergency TRO (meaning temporary), issued at night, with a judge presiding. My lawyer, Mike Peekskill, is in the process of having it revoked. In the meantime, guess what? Yours truly, Charlie D., still has the landscape architect’s plans from when Johanna and I were thinking of replacing these palms with something less jungly and prone to pests. So I happen to know for certain that the distance from the house to the stucco wall is sixty-three feet. Right now, I reckon I’m about sixty to sixty-one, here in the vegetation. And, anyway, nobody can see me, because it’s February and already dark in these parts” (130).

Story by story, Eugenides outlines the various ways in which we, as humans, derive drama out of our mundane. For those of us blessed with relational bliss, we see economic turmoil; for those blessed with abundance, a difficult relationship awaits; for all of us, old age deteriorates the best of us. Outside of its eponymous story, which outlines a concerning statutory rape scenario, Fresh Complaint stylistically embodies concerns of life.

We will always have fresh complaints. That’s why you should read Jeffrey Eugenides’ story collection, Fresh Complaint.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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