Jeffrey Eugenides has been a literary darling since he published The Virgin Suicides in 1993; when his 2002 novel Middlesex won the Pulitzer, it cemented his status. But he’s one of those authors who only publishes a novel about once a decade and then disappears for a while, so we’re still a few years away from getting a follow-up to 2011’s The Marriage Plot.
In the interim, Eugenides is releasing Fresh Complaint, a collection of short stories that spans his entire career, from 1988 to 2017. Fresh Complaint acts as a sort of Eugenides sampler, one that shows off both his enormous gifts as a prose stylist and the tendency toward myopia — especially with regard to women — that can plague his writing.
Eugenides’s stories tend to dwell on how men objectify women and use them as screens on which to project their own anxieties about sex and power and masculinity; in The Virgin Suicides, for instance, the beautiful and tragic Lisbon sisters become the means through which the neighborhood boys work out their own confusions over adolescence and longing. And as such, there’s an ever-present danger that Eugenides’s writing may step over the fine line between commenting on the objectification of women and just straight up doing some objectifying of its own.
Fresh Complaint is certainly not exempt from that danger. The Guardian summarized the stories in the collection as “men behaving badly,” and for the most part, the men are behaving sexually badly, mostly toward women. In “Find the Bad Guy,” the narrator cheats on his beautiful, out-of-his-league wife and then violates his restraining order to spy on her. In “Baster,” the narrator learns that his beautiful, out-of-his-league ex-girlfriend has asked an acquaintance to be her sperm donor, so he promptly disposes of the other guy’s sperm sample and replaces it with his own, without her knowledge. Men in these stories seduce much younger women; they destroy their marriages; they abuse positions of power and catalog the breasts of every woman they see.
Generally, this is because Eugenides is interested in unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. His men are never presented as aspirational figures, but as lonely sad sacks who are terrible to women because they are incapable of establishing genuine human connections. (The only story to focus solely on women, “Complainers,” is also the only story to feature a deep and authentic friendship.)
And generally, Eugenides is very good at writing his unpleasant men behaving badly. His stories are beautifully crafted, each with a distinctive, elegant voice and a gut punch of a closing line. They’re just long enough to give the reader a sense of how unpleasant these men truly are, without getting oppressive in the way that a novel-length book centered on one of these men might.
But often, there’s a little frisson of illicit pleasure in Eugenides’s stories at the idea of doing something terrible to a woman, a little can-you-believe-the-son-of-a-bitch-actually-did-it when, for instance, the narrator of “Baster” swaps out his ex’s preferred sperm sample for his own (“I’d waited ten years to see that face in the school-bus window,” he muses when he meets the resulting kid), or when the protagonist of “The Oracular Vulva” finally gives in and consents to receiving a blow job from a child (“Dr. Peter Luce is open-minded. And there’s nothing you can do, after all, about local customs.”).
These moments frequently occur in the final paragraphs of a story, when it reveals its black, cynical heart in all its glory. They’re where the emotional power lies. And while I don’t mean to suggest that reading and enjoying these moments is in any way immoral or wrong, if you are a woman who is tired of reading about women being sexually victimized, the overwhelming themes of Fresh Complaint might give you pause.
Most troubling is the title story, in which a teenage girl seduces an older man in order to entrap him with a false rape claim. The story perpetuates an old and incredibly damaging myth about false rape claims, and it does so without offering any of the twists or ironic undercuttings that Eugenides puts to such good work in the collection’s other stories: The protagonist may behave badly, like a true Eugenides male character, but he’s still ultimately the victim of a conniving young girl and her wicked feminine wiles. What value is there in such a straightforward and pedestrian telling of one of our most common and harmful cultural myths?
And yet Fresh Complaint also contains achingly beautiful and complex moments like this one, in which an old woman with dementia returns to a favorite book: “One sentence. Two. Then a whole paragraph. Since her last reading, she’s forgotten enough of the book that the story seems new again, yet familiar. Welcoming. But it’s mostly the act itself that brings relief, the self-forgetfulness, the diving and plunging into other lives.”
Eugenides is very, very good at creating other lives into which his readers can plunge. But what Fresh Complaint demonstrates is that he’s not always very good at making those lives welcoming to women.