The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (“Middlesex”) will appear with his first story collection — 10 short takes written over two decades — on Nov. 10 at Seattle First Baptist Church.
“Fresh Complaint: Stories”
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 285 pp., $27
Jeffrey Eugenides, best-known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Middlesex” — a rather prescient book, given its transgender leading character — is out with his first story collection.
Prescient? Maybe not, but perceptive? Sure enough. Dipping his pen repeatedly into subcultures not his own, a writer who has explored 20th-century American culture at length through his novels brings similar powers of observation to 10 short takes written over two decades.
Start with the story that gives the book its title, “Fresh Complaint.” Here’s a culture clash that couldn’t be more timely, in which a male physics professor on a visit to a distant college unwisely hooks up with a female student who’s a second-generation immigrant from India. The encounter is brief — it couldn’t even be called a one-night stand — but the results are catastrophic for one of the two participants.
The author will discuss “Fresh Complaint” with moderator Mary Ann Gwinn, former Seattle Times book editor, at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, at Seattle First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave., Seattle; free on a first-come, first-serve basis (elliottbaybook.com).
No he said-she said debates here. In the era of text messages and security cameras, Herr Professor looks decidedly guilty when the young woman accuses him of rape. Strangely, however, the evidence obscures rather than enlightens. Eugenides plays havoc with our preconceived (ha ha) ideas about the powerful man hitting on the innocent young thing. He’s not trying to score a political point here, just showing what a tangled web a thoughtless deed can weave.
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More sex on the brain: In “The Oracular Vulva,” a sexologist doing field research contemplates how the wheel has turned, converting him from a celebrated scientist into a discredited one. In “Baster,” a woman who has decided to have a baby on her own turns a normally private moment into a social event while the man who would like to have been the father observes from the sidelines. And in “Find the Bad Guy,” marital infidelity once again costs a man a lot more than he expected.
These stories, like the rest, feel like thought experiments, a place where the writer could play with tone and ideas to feed his novels. Not that Eugenides can’t write a good short story; it’s just that, for anyone who knows the scope of his longer works, these feel like finger exercises.
Other stories in “Fresh Complaint” touch on the narcissism of contemporary culture and the loneliness of old age. In “Air Mail,” a succinct portrait that is one of the best stories in the book, a self-absorbed young truth-seeker in paradise refuses medical help as he drifts toward an alternate state from which he won’t return.
Dissecting the generational divide, Eugenides shows how old people engender an attitude of condescension or worse, and how they reluctantly accede to it. In “Complainers,” do-gooder friend Cathy removes the older Della from a shabby assisted-living facility and triumphantly resettles her in a home of her own. But her kindness sets the stage for undesirable consequences.
And in “Timeshare,” the narrator describes his riches-to-rags father as a delusional old fool whose comeback play is to convert a rundown motel into a timeshare property. Everything about the story seems tawdry, from the condition of the motel to the state of his parents’ marriage to the son’s disparaging view of his father. Not a happy family tale, but then, Eugenides takes Tolstoy’s view: It’s the unhappy ones that have a story to tell.