Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It is a tough act to follow on the short-story front but nonetheless, I figured Jeffrey Eugenides’s first collection, Fresh Complaint, would be a reasonable bet.

The collection opens with Complainers, a gentle story about the decades-long friendship between two women, and how their relationship changes when one is diagnosed with dementia. I feel like I’m reading about dementia at every turn at the moment, but Eugenides’s take on it from the perspective of a friend was refreshingly different.

Dementia isn’t a nice word. It sounds violent, invasive, like having a demon scooping out pieces of your brain which in fact is just what it is.

The stories are solid but not thrilling. A couple peter out (Timeshare and Early Music), leaving me slightly deflated and Baster, the story of a woman’s artificial insemination ‘party’ was familiar (had I read it before? TV? Movie?).

In the title story, Fresh Complaint, Eugenides delves into some dark places when he reveals an American-born-Indian girl’s plan to avoid the strictures of an arranged marriage. It was by far the most compelling story in the collection but not in a positive way. Without revealing the plot, Eugenides introduces themes of rape and middle-aged-white-men being hardly done by – it seemed wildly insensitive (or just stupid) in the era of #metoo…

Air Mail, a story about a tourist’s experience of Bali-belly, made me laugh – the guy’s philosophical letters home were spliced with trips to the toilet (although points off for the god-awful Australian accents in this story. I listened to audio of this book and the Aussie accents were a cross between Cockney and New Zealander – a hot mess!).

Finally, I enjoyed Find the Bad Guy – the main character reminded me of Robert in Divorce (played by Thomas Haden Church).  Reflecting on his marital indiscretions, the main character says, “You couldn’t be enticed by something you didn’t already want.” True.

I like Eugenides writing well enough but I’ve never been in raptures – there’s only so much of the middle-aged-man lens that I can take (actually, if I’m going to look through that lens, I’d prefer Yates’s sharper eye or Franzen’s wit).

3/5 Solid.

In Complainers, the women indulge in margaritas because they use fewer Weight Watchers points than wine. I thought this Skinny Champagne Margarita was the best of both worlds.

6 responses

  1. To the extent that I retain what I read (5-10%?) I was impressed by Virgin Suicides some years ago, but less so by the one or two others I’ve read. Interesting point about middle aged, middle class white guys – they really are struggling to find something new to say. The SMH today had a story about the future of innovation in Oz writing being young women, of multiple backgrounds.

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