Book review

Can yet another collection of stories delving into everyday suburban lives be worth reading?

Yes, if it’s by Jeffrey Eugenides, whose understanding of what goes on inside relationships lifts ‘Fresh Complaint’

The stories in Fresh Complaint have the staple Jeffrey Eugenides elements – dissatisfied, strangely restless characters, living out their lives in anonymous suburban settings. There is his ability to depict the subtleties in any relationship – the unnoticed changes in habit and daily life that, in fact, matter more—and that elusive quality of intimacy when one can know how the other feels, despite the differences in time and context.

Two women

In “Complainers”, Della and Cathy, despite the difference in age, form an unlikely yet steadfast friendship on a bedrock of failing marriages, disappointment in men, and a shared love for reading. They trust their literary tastes: a book they had read long ago later goes through several reprints and turns out a surprising bestseller. It’s a book about two old women left behind by their community in a freezing Alaskan winter that appears to mirro – something Cathy realises subconsciously – her own life and Della’s.

The always more presumptuous Cathy, who, at this time, is visiting Della in a retirement home, believes Della will be happier if she returns to her home in Contoocook, Connecticut state, despite the dire weather predictions of an approaching snowstorm. Della falls in with this plan, part of, as Eugenides seems to suggest, the ineffable quality of trust that grows around a long friendship. Something no one else, especially in their families, realises:

Cathy’s husband, once annoyed, had called them both, a “couple of lezzies”.

(But) “It wasn’t that. Not an overflow of forbidden desire. Just a way of compensating for areas in life that produced less contentment than advertised. Marriage certainly. Motherhood more often than they liked to admit.”

Arranged marriage and other tropes

It could be just coincidence that stories with similar titles bookend this collection. In “Fresh Complaint”, a 17-year old Indian-American girl, Prakrti Banerjee, is taken by surprise when, during a Diwali visit to her parents’ hometown of Calcutta, her mother fixes Prakrti’s impromptu engagement, to be followed by an arranged marriage, with someone from their community, a boy called Dev Kumar.

Prakriti, meanwhile, has this ability to take on and play-act different roles at will. Her overtures toward Matthew, a well-known physicist who is in her college for a series of lectures, appear nebulous in the beginning, but as is soon clear, she has formulated her own devious plans simply to get out of the marriage her mother has set her heart on.

However, with this story, Eugenides comes up a bit short in his research. As a Bengali, forced to agree to an arranged marriage, it is a bit strange for someone called Prakrti Banerjee to get engaged to a Dev Kumar. Moreover, Bengalis do not, in general, observe Diwali in the manner Eugenides depicts; the tradition of floating clay lamps down the river is more a Varanasi tradition. It is also a bit unusual, when Prakriti, thinking over her parents’ own arranged marriage, believes her mother lost her virginity, to a man she has never met before, in an anonymous hotel room.

The question might be asked if such errors, minute as they are, matter, especially as they do not directly influence the story’s narrative. But in a literary world, when writers take on the onus and responsibility of depicting worlds unfamiliar to their own, sometimes treading on thin ice as they manipulate literary power structures (the subjects one chooses to write about what and in what manner), getting the backbone of a story right matters a great deal.

Life is elsewhere

The Third World resurfaces in the story “Airmail’ ­ set in a beach resort in Thailand in a pre-internet time. Mitchell is recuperating in a tent, stricken with a case of acute diarrhoea. He shares his name with Mitchell Grammaticus, one of the three central characters in Eugenides’s sweeping 2013 campus novel, The Marriage Plot. The story could have been birthed off the novel, for Mitchell in “Airmail” shares similar concerns with his namesake in the novel: vague indistinct notions about eastern concepts like maya, his conviction of having attained Moksha as the ringing in his ears seem to indicate.

However, Mitchell’s spiritual deliberations are often interrupted by more physical imperatives, for instance, when he must concern himself with issues relating to Asian toilets. Such toilets, Mitchell realises, had made him limber since they forced him to squat.

While writing this story, Eugenides appears to have had a checklist of things Indian: Mitchell hopes for food other than “idli-sambar” in Mahabalipuram; in Calcutta, he notices the Bengalis (only?) queuing outside a phone booth, and observes lepers – mother and young son – in Bangalore. This last scene is reminiscent of the other Mitchell’s (in The Marriage Plot) grim visit to help Mother Teresa’s missionaries in Calcutta, when he encounters, in a fascinating morbid way, lepers suffering from various manifestations of the disease.

Marriage plots

Rebecca and Rodney in “Early Music” struggle to pay bills while chasing their dreams – he plays the harpsichord and she makes endearing destressing mice toys. But this is never enough, for the bills keep mounting and creditors are always on the phone. It is a story of a marriage in crisis, as played out in Rodney’s mind, who resents the fact that his wife is free to indulge herself as an “entrepreneur” whereas he must work at a job.

Smells feature a lot in these stories – in “Early Music”, the aroma or odour of the “Nice n Warm” mice can affect human moods. A smell of mist and damp perpetually hangs around Florida in “Timeshare”, and in “Find the Bad Guy”, the narrator, in a troubled marriage, can sense the smells people have left behind in houses they no longer live in.

But as Eugenides did, leisurely and extravagantly and still very readably, in The Marriage Plot, his accurate observations about domesticity, everyday living habits and the complexities these contain lift these stories. Eugenides’s prose, with humour and insight, can change what is staid and prosaic to something totally unique. Reading him can make us better observers of our own selves.

Kendall, a struggling, poorly paid editor at Great Experiment (in the story with the same title), and his wife Stephanie simply can’t manage on their combined salaries to run a house efficiently. The evening, Kendall notices the mess in the master bedroom, the hamper with its overflowing, unwashed clothes, and realises they need a “wife”.

“How had it happened in one generation? His parents’ bedroom had never looked like this. Kendall’s father had a dresser full of neatly ironed laundry, a closet full of pressed suits, and ironed shirts. Every night he had a perfectly made bed to climb into. Nowadays if Kendall wanted to live as his own father had, he was going to have to hire a laundress and cleaning lady, and a social secretary and a cook. He was going to have to hire a wife. Wouldn’t that be great? Stephanie could use one too. Everybody needed a wife, and no one had one any more.”

Eugenides can also tell you just when a relationship goes wrong. The reasons lie in perfectly ordinary moments, in things inadvertently missed. In “The Bad Guy”, Charlie has this realisation as he separates from his wife:

“There’s a thing they’ve figured out about love. Scientifically. They’ve done studies to find out what keeps couples together. Do you know what it is? It isn’t getting along. Isn’t having money, or children, or a similar outlook on life. It’s just checking in with each other. Doing little kindnesses for each other. At breakfast, you pass the jam. Or, on a trip to New York City, you hold hands for a second in a subway elevator. You ask, ‘How was your day?” and pretend to care. Stuff like that really works.” 

Fresh Complaint: Stories, Jeffrey Eugenides, Fourth Estate.

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