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Jeffrey Eugenides' 'Fresh Complaint' Makes For Absorbing Fiction

Jeffrey Eugenides' first short story collection reminds us, during the long wait between novels, what we like so much about his writing. These ten stories, written over nearly 30 years, showcase his ability to write convincing female characters, his sensitivity to spouses and artists under duress, and his compassion for people who disappoint themselves as much as each other. Although not thematically linked, a recurring concern is what happens when basically good people succumb to temptations and pressures and behave badly.

Fresh Complaint is smartly bookended by two strong stories written in 2017. In the first, "Complainers," a long friendship between two women faces new challenges from the elder's dementia. It's an empowerment story whose roots go back 20 years earlier, to the lessons the women learned from a favorite shared book about two old Inuit women who, left behind during a time of famine, end up saving themselves and their tribe.

At the other end, the title story features an expelled husband whose marriage implodes after he stupidly succumbs to "concupiscence. That chronic, inflammatory complaint" — as does an earlier story, "Find the Bad Guy," from 2013. Of the two, "Fresh Complaint" is the more compelling and nuanced: Zigzagging in time and hopscotching between the perspectives of a duped visiting physics professor and the Indian-American teenager who ensnares him with her perverse anti-marriage plot, Eugenides musters sympathy for both victims. But, although driven by desperation, the girl's scheme to derail the arranged marriage her parents have planned — collateral damage be damned — is the more troubling infraction.

Eugenides writes with his heart, but also his nose. Bathrooms and foul odors pervade this collection — bad breath, mildew, the lingering scent of elderly homeowners, the stench of diarrhea. The best-known story, "Baster," written in 1995 and the basis for the 2010 romantic comedy, The Switch, climaxes in a bathroom. One of several narratives to feature an O. Henry twist at the end, this satirical tale of ticking time clocks, baby lust, and artificial insemination told by a jilted lover is both creepy and funny.

Readers may recognize Dr. Peter Luce, a sexologist who studies gender identity, from Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel, Middlesex. In "The Oracular Vulva," written in 1999, he turns up in a remote jungle village that reeks of "mud and feces mixed with armpit and worm." A reluctant anthropologist, he's there to do fieldwork in an attempt to salvage his challenged theory of intersexuality, but he spends much of his time miserably fighting off alarming sexual importuners and mosquitoes. We also meet another familiar character in "Air Mail," a 1996 story that finds Mitchell, the soul-searching religious studies major from Eugenides' third novel, The Marriage Plot, laid low by dysentery but seeking spiritual and intestinal transcendence in Thailand.

Eugenides writes with his heart, but also his nose.

While not all the stories are memorable, there isn't a dud in this generally solid collection. Among the more powerful and ambitious is "Great Experiment," which involves one of Eugenides' recurrent themes — the slippery slope of rationalizing. Kendall Wallis, a once-promising poet, is surprised to find himself at age 45 working for a small Chicago publishing house whose rich, elderly owner extravagantly admires Alexis de Tocqueville's vision of America's Great Experiment in economic equality — yet won't even give his editor health insurance. "Kendall had never expected to be as rich as his parents," Eugenides writes in this story from the second Bush era, "but he'd never imagined that he would earn so little or that it would bother him so much." Charged with producing a pocket digest of Democracy in America, the discrepancies between de Tocqueville's idealism and his own straitened circumstances gall Kendall and goad him to actions that betray his better judgment. The result makes for a foreboding, heart-in-mouth reading experience.

Although Eugenides' stories are more traditional than edgy, the absorbing fiction in Fresh Complaint renders us -- like the 88-year-old dementia sufferer comforted by the vaguely familiar Inuit tale in the opening story — freshly grateful for what literature can do: "the self-forgetfulness, the diving and plunging into other lives."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.