Jeffrey Eugenides On Humanity and the Art of Short Fiction

Photo by Ben Stas.

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.

Aside from a cuss-filled account of a stoned undergrad meeting a middle aged man after a weekend of bathhouse debauchery, Jeffrey Eugenides appears right at home behind a church lectern.

No story of Eugenides’s ends in overt fire and brimstone, nor did he play an iconized minister to the packed pews of First Parish Church in Harvard Square this past Friday night. If anything, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author proved to be a thoughtful medium into the cerebral struggles of being human, both on page and in person.

Eugenides has earned a reputation throughout his work of telling intricate, difficult stories steeped in heartfelt renderings of personality.

His debut novel, “The Virgin Suicides” (1993), focuses on five sisters who commit suicide and a group of adoring boys from their neighborhood who were too prone to the male gaze to truly connect with them. The book resulted in a worldwide fanbase and a film adaptation directed by Sofia Coppola in 1999.

“I don’t think I’ve read another book by a man that so effectively captures the female experience and how it feels to be a woman,” one female fan said about “The Virgin Suicides” in the event’s Q&A portion.

Eugenides followed “Suicides” with “Middlesex” (2002), an epic reflecting on the life of intersex narrator Cal Stephanides and his Greek lineage, and post-grad coming-of-age novel “The Marriage Plot” (2011). His latest work, “Fresh Complaint,” showcases not a particular character but a 30-year span of Eugenides’s short stories, a form the author has admitted to avoiding since his “mind is naturally suited for a long form.”

“I’ve already changed my views on that,” Eugenides said with a smirk moments before going onstage. “I’ve started to get a hang of what is a short story and what is a novel, but it was only by doing it for many years in writing this book and really concentrating on the form.”

“Fresh Complaint” is less a short story collection than an intimate tour through Eugenides’s evolution as an author. Its oldest story, “Capricious Gardens” (1988), is a darkly humorous character study of four strangers who are thrown together in a mansion left behind in a separated marriage and joined by hitchhiking, sexual desire, and depression. Eugenides is the first to admit that the story hardly resembles his future work.

“I was worried it would be like looking at your diary from years ago and encountering absolutely how stupid you were,” Eugenides jokes. “I was relieved to find that … it was written in a fairly lucid point in my youth. It was kind of like the opposite feeling, like ‘How come I didn’t do anything like this again?’”

Familiar faces from his novels—Mitchell from “The Marriage Plot” and Dr. Peter Luce from “Middlesex”—appear in stories predating their respective novels, slogging through grim ordeals of dysentery and severe culture shock amongst an Indonesian tribe. More than anything though, “Fresh Complaint” shows some of Eugenides’s most confessional work, pulling directly from the last years of his parents’ lives. “Timeshare” is a nearly autobiographical account of a resort his father bought in Daytona Beach after a stretch of failed business attempts, a decision which the author refers to as his father’s “valiant last stand.”

“Complainers,” on the other hand, opens the collection with a focus on his mother.

“It’s about my mother, who suffered from dementia at the end of her life,” Eugenides says. “I took my point of view out of the story as much as possible and told from the point of view of a 90-year old woman and her 70-year old friend, which is obviously far from what I’m intimately acquainted with. It was really an act of fiction writing to try and figure out what they were thinking and what might’ve happened.”

“Complainers” turned out a “Thelma and Louise”-like triumph of two women finding freedom in their increasingly contained lives, tackling the ugly details of assisted living or cold, unaffected adult sons-turned-caretakers.

The collection’s namesake story, however, might be Eugenides’s most divisive work yet in an era with so many high-profile cases involving rape given dubious media coverage and survivors who come forward often being callously questioned by the public.

The story centers around Prakrti, a first-generation American whose parents want her to have an arranged marriage. She has a brief sexual encounter with an older cosmology professor and then tells police she was raped so that she will be considered “no longer a suitable Hindu bride” and escape being forced into marriage. Eugenides calls the plot “a complicated moral equation.”

“It wasn’t a question of simple guilt or innocence,” Eugenides begins. “I think it’s pretty clear that the older professor in the story is guilty of a terrible transgression, but I wanted to subvert the power relations in a story like that. I was trying to show a situation where a young woman rather bravely, I think, gets her own freedom from doing something that perhaps might be extremely excessive and maybe even immoral. The whole thing is extremely complicated morally, and that’s what made it interesting for me, especially in the climate we’re in where things can be often quite simplified.”

The sole story Eugenides chose to read from on Friday night is, as of now, unpublished. “Bronze” opens with Eugene, a stoned college kid on a train in a white, faux-fur coat and a swirl of insecurities around his voice, sensitivity, and a boyfriend with “hair cut in a wedge like Dorothy Hamill.” He encounters Jeffrey, a middle aged man grappling with his own sensitivity as an ex of his begins his slow, final descent into terminal illness. Eugenides largely spends the passage conjuring Eugene and Jeffrey, ending on a tentative greeting between the two, but it’s enough of an example of what Eugenides values in his years of tinkering with short fiction.

“I think temperamentally, I’m more comfortable with a more indeterminate ending than a lot of readers are,” Eugenides concludes. “Readers like some kind of clarity at the end of the story and, as I’ve written and thought about writing, I think I want there to be both clarity and a definitive ending, but an expansion of meaning in there so it’s not too simple.”