At the beginning of Jeffrey Eugenides’ gloriously morbid first novel, 1993’s “The Virgin Suicides,” Cecilia Lisbon takes her own life. Shortly afterward, a priest talks with the girl’s sisters to assess their emotional state. His verdict to the concerned community is blunt and exact: All four girls are “buffeted but not broken.”
“Fresh Complaint,” Eugenides’ first collection of short stories, is filled with characters who are buffeted and broken — perhaps irreparably. Some take wrong turns or hit dead ends. Some are just victims of bad luck. Most try to bounce back, but many find the damage already done. Friendships unravel and relationships founder; confidence is knocked and sanity is threatened.
All of which sounds like a relentless misery-fest. However, Eugenides’ tales are rich in comedy and compassion: If we aren’t laughing at one person mired in absurdity, we are championing another facing up to adversity.
Not all characters earn our sympathy, but their creator deserves our admiration, for almost every story comprises a neatly constructed narrative on which hang engaging predicaments, surprise outcomes and Eugenides’ special brand of wit and wisdom.
Two new stories bookend the collection. In “Complainers,” Cathy visits her friend Della at her retirement home and gives her a book that she hopes will trigger memories. Neither woman mentions Della’s malady, dementia: “It sounds violent, invasive, like having a demon scooping out pieces of your brain.” When Della’s inattentive sons make no offer to look after her, Cathy whisks her away, eschewing medical treatment for loving care.
In the last tale, we come upon a different complaint. Matthew, an English physicist, travels from New York to Delaware to give a lecture. But after an Indian girl accuses him of rape, his life spins out of control. With great skill, Eugenides pans out to reveal a bigger, murkier picture containing an ulterior motive and a desperate measure.
The majority of Eugenides’ stories revolve around overreaching or underachieving men, several of whom are trying to dig themselves out of financial holes.
In “Great Experiment,” the editor of a Chicago publishing house hatches a plan to defraud the company and upgrade his life of “middle-class squalor.” In “Early Music,” a music teacher is unable to keep up the monthly payments for his beloved clavichord.
One of the most involving stories is “Air Mail.” Originally published in 1996, it introduces Mitchell, the college student who would crop up 15 years later in Eugenides’ third novel, “The Marriage Plot.” Here we find him on a Thai beach, fasting, meditating and writing letters home stuffed with mystical bunkum. But for all his enlightened thoughts and out-of-body experiences, he has yet to wise up to the fact that he is wasting away from amebic dysentery.
Only the dull and predictable “Timeshare” fails to ignite. Otherwise, these bittersweet stories command our attention. Time and again, and with pathos and pungency, Eugenides ensures a character’s loss is the reader’s gain.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Fresh Complaint: Stories
By: Jeffrey Eugenides.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 285 pages, $27.