Culture At Large

Fresh Complaint: Eugenides and Ecclesiastes

Cameron McAllister

Unlike most of today’s leading secular thinkers, artists don’t have the luxury of overlooking Ecclesiastes 3:11, which notes that God has “set eternity” in the human heart.  If a novelist, for instance, attempts to give us a character without any discernible spiritual yearnings, they’ve given us a character without a pulse. Think of the personified abstractions that populate Ayn Rand’s breathless paean to rational self-interest, The Fountainhead. This is not to suggest that there aren’t avowedly non-religious writers who produce great works of art; it is to suggest that no serious work of art can omit the perennial appetite for eternity that drives most human action.  

Part of what gives Jeffrey Eugenides’ novels such a lasting power is that they offer a vivid distillation of this deep-seated spiritual impulse. Though Middlesex—his story about an intersex character named Calliope Stephanides—won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, it’s 2011’s The Marriage Plot that constitutes his true masterpiece to date. It’s an immensely subtle novel that happens to contain one of the most fulsome accounts of agape love that I’ve encountered in contemporary fiction.

Interestingly, characters from both novels crop up in Fresh Complaint, Eugenides’ first collection of short stories, which was published in October. More of a retrospective than a new collection, Fresh Complaint offers a broad survey of Eugenides’ forays into shorter fiction, going back as far as 1988’s “Capricious Gardens”—a story that began its life as a master’s thesis. The two short stories that feature the familiar characters are fascinating because they aren’t just add-ons, but precursors. Both were published well before their novelistic counterparts hit shelves. As such, they offer a glimpse of Middlesex and The Marriage Plot in embryonic form.    

“Air Mail” is easily the best story in Fresh Complaint. In it we meet Mitchell Grammaticus—a contemporary pilgrim who will eventually take a fascinating trip to Calcutta in The Marriage Plot. In “Air Mail” we find him waylaid in Thailand with a serious bout of dysentery, which he chooses to view as a rigorous spiritual training regimen. But whereas in the The Marriage Plot the contours of Mitchell’s spiritual hunger are mainly Christian, here they are undeniably Eastern, terminating in self-effacement and oblivion: “He felt his insides emptying out. The sensation of water leaving him was no longer painful or explosive; it had become a steady flow of his essence into nature. In the next second, Mitchell felt as though he were dropping through the water, and then he had no sense of himself at all.” The decidedly earthy tone of incorporating bodily functions into the iconic ocean image is all Eugenides—a grim note of realism to counter the character’s youthful idealism.  

The eternity that is set in the hearts of men has only two possible results: plentitude or desolation.

Mitchell isn’t the collection’s only character who seeks spiritual fulfillment in abolishment, though. “Complainers,” the opening story, introduces us to two women who have nurtured a long and eccentric friendship, bonding over books. At the end, Della, the elder of the two, can’t resist the urge to carry her failing body into the cleansing erasure of the snow: “It would be like the outside meeting the inside. The two of them merging. Everything white. Just walk on out. Keep going.” If this strikes you as sad, that sadness has a lot to do with the recognition that the eternity that is set in the hearts of men has only two possible results: plentitude or desolation. In a radical maneuver, Eastern spirituality makes a virtue of desolation. We may admire the discipline and willpower involved, but it’s hard to avoid the tragedy of such an outlook when we encounter a frail old lady disappearing into the snow.

Not all of the stories deliver on their promises, however. The act of sexual sabotage that concludes “Baster” will read very differently in the wake of 2017’s revelations regarding systemic sexual abuse. The same verdict might also be handed out to the title story, in which an Indian-American teenager resorts to sexual blackmail in order to avoid an arranged marriage. The fact that this convoluted plan involves pedophilia will be especially trying for many readers in light of recent headlines.

Eugenides also has a bad habit of drawing the reader’s conclusions, telegraphing details that are better realized than explained. In “Early Music,” the ambiguity surrounding the tuning of antiquated compositions serves as a metaphor for the Edenic past we long to recover. It’s a lovely thought, but Eugenides weakens it with his refusal to allow the story’s circumstances to speak for themselves: “Everybody’s life was early music.” It’s the kind of sentence that inspired the phrase, “Kill your darlings.”  

Eugenides has an uncanny ability to capture the natural consequences of desperation, and this is what ultimately unites these disparate stories. Though their author’s spiritual convictions remain ambiguous, the characters in Fresh Complaint continually confirm the biblical understanding of the human heart. Desperation has a way of doing that.

Topics: Culture At Large