Thursday 21 June 2018

Elegantly simple classics from a timeless writer

Short stories: Fresh Complaint, Jeffrey Eugenides, Fourth Estate, hardback, 304 pages, €17.99

Tantalising ideas: Eugenides
Tantalising ideas: Eugenides
Fresh Complaint

Tanya Sweeney

There are many virtues which, when they fall into the lap of a writer, can spin pure magic. A keen sense of the beauty of the everyday. A nose for the complexity of self-discovery and self-love. A gimlet-eyed view of the inner workings of the modern family. An ability to draw intimacy and innermost thoughts from characters.

Jeffrey Eugenides has long been renowned for all of these qualities, even while tackling some big issues and conceits in his work.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex (2002) explores the experiences of an intersex person in modern-day America, while 2011's The Marriage Plot centres on three young graduates in a love triangle.

His output may not be as prolific as some of his fans might like, but regardless, Eugenides is a writer of blazing originality. In the event that he does publish a book, the world sits up and takes notice.

And so to Fresh Complaint, his first collection of short stories. The author of three novels published within a 20-year time span, Eugenides has also been penning shorter works on the regular, primarily for the New Yorker. Two of these, 'Asleep in the Lord' and 'Extreme Solitude', partly formed the backbone for Middlesex.

But this is Eugenides' first book of shorter works (if you don't count My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead, a short-story collection that he edited). Most of them have been written between 1988 and 2017, and of the 10 stories in the collection, two may be already familiar to fans.

'Air Mail', a young traveller's journey on the road to himself, featured in Annie Proulx's 1997 edition of The Best American Short Stories; 'Baster', a story about Thomasina, a woman whose donor insemination party goes slightly awry and kickstarts a series of unfortunate events, was published in the New Yorker as far back as 1996. With a plot that goes hither and thither, 'Baster' is a standout moment in the book.

As one might expect from a compendium almost 30 years in the making, Fresh Complaint is threaded with the most delicious, tantalising ideas. Did each one start out with the intention of becoming a full-blown novel? It's hard to tell, but in almost each instance, the characters are so intriguing and alive that they could easily carry a reader for several hundred pages.

Onyx-dark humour, pathos, intensity - it's all here. In 'Complainers', a story underpinned with gentleness, a pair of elderly friends, one older and much more frail than the other and heading for assisted living, ruminate on their relationship.

'Find the Bad Guy', meanwhile, finds a couple within a 21-year-old marriage that's flatlining; so much so that the wife decides to take a restraining order out on her husband. 'Capricious Gardens', written in 1998, sees a handful of backpackers and a local intersect for an evening in a house in Ireland. It's to his credit that Eugenides doesn't go overboard with flowery descriptions of Ireland.

Rather, Eugenides' Ireland could be anywhere. It's the interiorities of the characters that take centre stage.

Short story collections have become a much bigger story in publishing of late. Commercially and creatively, they have moved out from the fringes of the industry.

A new wave of writers has fought back against the cinching constraints of the genre with audacity, edginess and experimentation: Eugenides, though, is more a fan of keeping things simple and straightforward.

For most writers, 'simple and straightforward' is damning praise, but not here. Eugenides demonstrates a classic, timeless style has ensured that his stories, some of them decades old, haven't yet dated. Nor are they likely to.

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