In his third novel, The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides invokes Tolstoy’s fable of a man chased by a beast into a well only to find an equally angry dragon at the well’s bottom. The man hangs from a branch midway between the slobbering predators. Mice begin to gnaw the branch and he knows he will soon perish. He notices a two drops of honey on the end of the branch. He licks the honey. The taste distracts him from his impending doom.
For Tolstoy, the drops of honey were art and love of family. The distractive pursuits of Fresh Complaint tend to be a bit more transgressive. The collection’s ten short stories feature characters looking to assuage the grievances of life, be it through love, lust, money, spiritual seeking, stalking, the act of complaining or simply a night spent riotously playing a soon-to-be-repossessed clavichord.
The collection is bookended by two new pieces, beginning with “The Complainers” and closing with title story “Fresh Complaint.” The remaining stories were written in a span between 1988 and 2013. “The Complainers” chronicles a friendship between two older women, Cathy and Della. Della is suffering from dementia and has recently been confined to assisted living. The women have bonded over a book titled Two Old Women, in which a pair of Inuit women are left behind by their tribe because of their advanced age and tendency to complain. But griping for Della and Cathy is an essential and pleasurable act. “What was it about complaining that felt so good?” the story asks. “You and your fellow sufferer emerging from a thorough session as if from a spa bath, refreshed and tingling?” Della and Cathy deal with their dissatisfaction thorough heartwarming shenanigans—Cathy breaks Della out of the hospital and spirits her away to her beloved country cabin. As the collection progresses, it moves into increasingly darker territory, culminating in “Fresh Complaint,” in which complaint has gone from a wife stewing over her husband’s foibles to an actual criminal complaint filed against a renowned cosmologist accused of a sexual encounter with a teenage girl.
Two of the collection’s stories contain, in embryonic form, material for Eugenides’ novels. The protagonist of “Air Mail,” selected by Annie Proulx for The Best American Short Stories 1997, is Mitchell Grammaticus of The Marriage Plot. In the story, Grammaticus finds himself at a retreat in Thailand suffering from dysentery and seeking spiritual enlightenment. The main character of “The Oracular Vulva,” Dr. Peter Luce, is the same sexologist found in Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. In “The Oracular Vulva” Luce’s theories on gender have been disproven by a younger doctor and he has embedded himself with the fictional Dawat tribe in hopes that new research will restore his theories and reputation. As he ponders his academic struggles, he attempts to ward off the advances of a young Dawat boy, who according to the tribe’s customs, is obligated to sexually gratify his elders.
A striking feature of Eugenides first two novels is narrative experimentation—The Virgin Suicides with its third person plural narration and the first person omniscience of Middlesex. There is some narrative play in this collection, most notably in the collection’s earliest story, “Capricious Gardens,” which was Eugenides’ first published piece, appearing in The Gettysburg Review in 1989. Two young women are picked up on the Irish roadside by Sean, who has designs on one of the travelers, Amy. The other young traveler is also yearning for Amy. Upon arriving at Sean’s home, they find the gardens neglected and Sean’s recently suicidal friend Malcolm, who had dropped by unannounced seeking comfort and connection. The perspective jumps between the four characters, at times rapid fire, as they share a dinner of artichokes and plot to fulfill their own desires and thwart the desires of others.
The characters of Fresh Complaint routinely engage in subversion, the acts growing more complexly dark and emotional as the collection progresses. In the third story, “Baster,” the diminutive, unattractive Wally Mars is troubled that his ex-girlfriend Thomasina is using a handsome, strapping sperm donor, rather than considering his own genetic contribution. Wally, impulsively and deceptively, takes the matter into his own hands. There is a darkly comic voice to the piece and a twist ending that undercuts the emotionality of Wally and Thomasina’s longing to procreate by any means necessary and mutes the moral questionability of Wally’s actions. The humor is tamped down by the time the collection reaches its penultimate tale of a poet-turned-editor’s descent into embezzlement. The subversive act in “The Great Experiment” ends with the implication of impending damnation for the narrator and his children. The final story “Fresh Complaint,” opens with a fallen character. The piece dwells deeply and uncomfortably on consequence in the collection’s most emotionally searching story.
Fresh complaint is a legal term, pertaining to sexual assault. If a victim delays reporting a rape to authorities but has made a statement to another individual immediately after the act, that statement is a “fresh complaint” that may be used to corroborate the victim’s testimony. The story, “Fresh Complaint,” is a nonlinear telling of a sexual encounter between a middle-aged professor, husband and father and a sixteen-year-old Indian girl trying to escape an arranged marriage. The narrative toggles between the perspectives of the professor and the girl, expertly layering deception, transgression and desperation.
By the end of Tolstoy’s life, he no longer found solace in family and art, writing: “Now I cannot help seeing day and night chasing me and leading me to my death. This is all I can see because it is the only truth. All the rest is a lie.” Fresh Complaint gives an accounting for the darkness of human folly and aging, of impending death and passage of time. It traffics frequently in delusion and lies. It is a chorus of complaints. But the final notes of the new stories signal a view in opposition to Tolstoy, choosing moments of hope and connection, choosing to look away from doom, to hope, to savor the honey.
Jessica Walker is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Virginia. Her short stories are published or forthcoming in Indiana Review, Grist, Booth, and elsewhere