Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Middlesex," is known for epic tales with intricate plots and large casts that cover long time periods. His fulsome approach is not ideally suited for the short-story form, which by default tends to be more slender and elliptical. But with "Fresh Complaint," his first collection of short fiction, Eugenides gamely adapts his characteristic style for the genre. Because he's not a fast writer, with nine years between each of his novels, the collection offers his fans a quick fix — a kind of intermezzo — of his distinctive voice.
The 10 stories in "Fresh Complaint" cover close to three decades of Eugenides's writing career, from 1988 to the present. Most chronicle struggle and disappointment. His characters' relationships sour; their promising careers don't soar as they approach middle age, and neither do their bank accounts. They fret about health insurance. Bill collectors hound them at dinner.
In "Early Music," a once-promising clavichord player barely finds time to practice while taking care of his kids while his wife, instead of finishing her PhD in musicology, pursues a moneymaking scheme: stuffed toy mice that release a delightful potpourri smell when microwaved.
In "Great Experiment," a poet-turned-book editor is desperate enough about his financial state to resort to white-collar crime. "Kendall had never expected to be as rich as his parents, but he'd never imagined that he would earn so little or that it would bother him so much." The world of adults, he fears, has bypassed him: "In this real world, there were things like custom software and ownership percentages and Machiavellian corporate struggles, all of which resulted in the ability to drive a heartbreakingly beautiful forest-green Range Rover up your own paved drive."
Real estate deals, especially, go badly, as people take on crushing mortgages on fixer-uppers they can't afford to fix or put their cherished belongings in storage while storms spring leaks over their beds in seedy temporary housing. If houses are windows to the souls of their inhabitants, Eugenides's are almost all in decline and disrepair, such as the neglected Irish estate in "Capricious Gardens" with its woefully overgrown gardens.
Eugenides excels at penetrating — and gently mocking — the insider lingo of academics. He can make a realistic setting seem deliciously weird, and the highlights in these stories often feature simultaneously funny and plaintive images that encourage our appreciation for "the pleasant absurdity of America." In "Timeshare," a young man visits his parents' latest iffy real estate investment, a condo project in Daytona, and frequents a beach bar that serves as a tidy metaphor for his own entrapment. It features "a real live shark. Three feet long, it swims in an aquarium above the stacked bottles. The shark has just enough room in its tank to turn around and swim back the other way. . . . The dancers wear bikinis, some of which sparkle like fish scales. They circulate through the gloom like mermaids, as the shark butts its head against the glass."
Two of these stories revisit characters from Eugenides's novels. "The Oracular Vulva" reintroduces Dr. Peter Luce, the sexologist and intersex expert from "Middlesex," as he does field research on the bizarre Dawat tribe in Irian Jaya and engages in an "Amadeus"-style rivalry about sexual identity with a younger academic. "Air Mail" revisits the peripatetic, mystically inclined Mitchell from "The Marriage Plot" as he endures an epic case of dysentery — and a hallucinatory fast — at a backpackers' camp in Thailand.
These stories can't fairly be called outtakes, as they cover different periods in the characters' lives than the novels do. Of course, in a novel, Eugenides has more time to detail and develop the contrasts between first and third worlds, between successful people and those who are rootless or flailing. But the highly unusual situations and settings featured in these tales feel more true to his vision than the ones chronicling more typical dissatisfactions: the divorces, infidelities and dashed hopes that turn up in many an American writer's New Yorker magazine story. Although the writing is undeniably skillful, Eugenides isn't at his best when focusing on "lives of quiet desperation." His novels — and better stories — chronicle wilder, more significant troubles.
The two best stories in "Fresh Complaint" are the two most recent, and they bookend the collection. The achingly sad "Complainers" concerns the fraught relationship between an 88-year-old woman with dementia and her younger friend, as both slip out of their lives' moorings. In the title story, an Indian American teenager seduces and entraps a famous married cosmologist when he gives a lecture at a small Delaware college — a plot to bespoil her own reputation and avoid an arranged marriage in India. In both of these stories, Eugenides achieves what a stellar short story can do better than any other form: By focusing on one discrete part of a life, he forcefully suggests the shape of the whole.
A "fresh complaint" is the legal term for a report of a sexual assault to a third party soon after it happens, which can help to corroborate the victim's claim. The best stories in this collection offer a sophisticated riff on that concept. They show how memory distorts our view of our own pasts, and how blind we are to the trajectory of futures, especially as we act impulsively. Of course, the title is also a pun: Eugenides characters sure do like to bewail their fates.
Lisa Zeidner's most recent novel is "Love Bomb." She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University at Camden. At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jeffrey Eugenides will be at St. Paul's Church, 4900 Connecticut Ave. NW . Call Politics at Prose for details at 202-364-1919 or visit politics-prose.com.
By Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar Straus Giroux. 304 pp. $27