June 25, 2020: “Fresh Complaint” by Jeffrey Eugenides

Thursday comes to us, Story366.

I’m going to plagiarize myself today for the opening of my post. I thought these following thoughts when I happened to be on FB this morning, not writing this blog, and I think they’ll probably be my best thoughts of the day on a random topic:

In non-essential news, I wonder if Major League Baseball is ready to have a team be in first place most of this 60-game season, then have several of their guys come down with the virus right before the playoffs. Do they delay the playoffs? Do they send that team forward with minor-league replacements?

Now imagine if a team is up two or three games in the World Series and a bunch of guys come down with it. Or if it’s tied. Or whatever. Do they delay the Series until everyone’s healthy, or does the sick team forfeit and the title goes to the other team by default?

I’m actually asking here: Are there plans for these types of scenarios? I want baseball back as much as anybody, probably more, but am worried that this will all become a test of who’s the healthiest. Or an exercise in the absurd.”

Got a lot of reasonable responses to this, a lot of smart people I know adding on to the fool’s errand MLB might be setting itself up for. Like every worst-case, overcautious scenario I’ve posited since early March, I hope I’m wrong: I hope this MLB season goes off without a hitch, nobody gets sick, be it player, supporting staff, or fan, and we all find some solace in America’s pastime, are entertained, and the time between now and when we have a vaccine seems shorter. Plus, maybe more people will just stay the hell home and watch games on TV instead of going out, as they’ve been doing. Who knows.

And yeah, the start of my note says, “In non-essential news …,” which is mostly apparent, right? I mean, there’s a lot of stuff going on the in the world. Sure, what I say above about baseball serving as a welcome distraction is true. I personally know a lot of people whose lively are adversely affected by no MLB. And people sure liked talking baseball over on FB—instead of, you know, the deadly virus and unconscionable acts against minorities—at least for a change of pace.

But still: the deadly virus and unconscionable acts against minorities ….

Today I read from Jeffrey Eugenides‘ 2017 collection, Fresh Complaint, brought to us by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I’m pretty sure I haven’t read a short story by Eugenides since I read “The Virgin Suicides,” pre-The Virgin Suicides novel, like twenty years ago. But it’s easy to categorize Eugenides as a major American writer—he won that Pulitzer for Middlesex—so when I saw he had a story collection out, I definitely made sure to track a copy down.

I ended up reading the bookend stories of the collection, the first and last, both of which have titles that involve complaining. That first story is called “Complaining,” actually, and is a lovely tale about two elderly women—Cathy and Della—who see Della through the early stages of her dementia diagnosis and plans for her care. Along the way, we get the backstory of their friendship, how they met, why they’re such good friends, etc., as well as growing implication as to why Cathy takes over Della’s care from her somewhat incompetent sons. It’s a rare story that focuses on women of this age and how their relationship is formed over many years. The perspective also shifts between the two women, a back-and-forth kind of thing, bring unique insight—and some unreliability—to Della’s state.

The title piece, “Fresh Complaint,” is another split-perspective story, this time shared by Matthew and Prakrti. This one starts out with Matthew, in England, finding out that “the charges against him” have been dropped, that it’s okay for him to return to America, to see his children again (not before he spins a top to make sure he’s not dreaming, of course …).

So Eugenides works backward here, which is a neat trick, drawing us in and building some tension. He effectively skips around in time throughout, between the past and present, between both characters, making for a complex and even mysterious read. I, from start to finish, genuinely wanted to know what was going to happen to Matthew, why he was in that predicament, and after I knew all that, what was going to happen to him. It’s kind of like an uncommonly great Law & Order episode, a comparision that Eugenides diffuses a bit by bringing it up himself.

In any case, back in the backstory, we find out that Matthew is a well published and somewhat famous physicist, the kind of guy who writes books and is able to tour with lectures because he’s interesting and real-people enough to pull that off. Early on, he’s in a coffee shop in Dover before such a lecture when he’s approached by a young woman, a student at the university who wants to meet him, says she’s a fan, and wants to hang out, there at the coffee shop and maybe again later, after the lecture. Matthew plays it cool, seems like he’s going to steer sharply away from this entanglement. At the end of the scene, however, Eugenides drops a subtle detail, Matthew looking up, albeit briefly, to check the woman out as she walks away.

From there we skip to Prakrti, who is forced to take a trip with her family to India. Eugenides doesn’t tell us this, but Prakrti is probably the girl who approached Matthew at the coffee shop, as she’s Indian and that’s how Matthew describes the girl there (spoiler: it’s her). In any case, Prakrti doesn’t want to be in India and doesn’t understand why she was taken out of school for this trip. That is until the end of the trip, when her mother reveals that the family they had lunch with the last day has a son: Prakrti’s family is trying to set up an arranged marriage.

Back to the physics lecture, the woman from the coffee shop—Prakrti, it’s soon revealed—shows up and gets Matthew to give her his phone number. They flirt a lot, so it’s no surprise that she’s able to text herself into his hotel room, and soon after, into his bed, but not before sending him out to a kiosk for a condom.

At this point, nothing’s all that surprising, just another story of a creepy middle-aged married dad using his scholastic prowess and influence to take advantage an undergrad (which is what happened, even if Prakrti approached him); in my world, we call that “academia.”

Except Eugenides makes it a lot better, a lot more complex. Soon the two threads, which just seemed like good backstory, start to come together.

Firstly, Prakrti ends the sexual encounter as soon as Matthew enters her—they literally have sex for one second before she removes herself from his embrace and then leaves his room. So, weird, but that’s her right and Matthew obliges (kind of like an anti-“Cat Person” scenario).

Things only get more complex, as the charges are filed, months later. Matthew is touring Europe and it takes the Dover police and the prosecutor weeks to even figure out who he is and track him down (information that Prakrti probably could have provided for them, but didn’t for some reason?).

The real “bombshell” is that Prakrti isn’t a college student at the university where Matthew was lecturing—she’s a high school junior, 16, well under the age of consent, making her the victim of statuatory rape. This is a law, by the way, Prakrti, researches extensively.

So, what’s going on here? Matthew is a bad guy, no doubt. He cheats on his wife, lets down his kids, gives into sordid temptation. He’s committed a crime and should be prosecuted. But Prakrti is playing at something here, too—this run-in with Matthew and case against him is in no way an accident.

I want to fully reveal what’s going on here, pretty badly, too, but just won’t here at Story366, especially not in a mystery-type story like this. I think I gave you all the clues you’d need to solve the case, though. So go to it.

There’s some commonality between the two stories I read from Fresh Complaint, like the root complain in the titles, but also Jeffrey Eugenides’ use of shifting perspective within the two stories. Do all the stories in-between do that, too? It makes me recall the fact that I cite Eugenides a lot in my classes, as he is the author who wrote a communal narrator novel, The Virgin Suicides, something I mention when I teach that POV, kind of the standard companion to “A Rose for Emily.”

But there’s so much more here, too, Eugenides’ patience, his ability to construct complex structures and reveal info at the proper rate. For years, I’ve sworn by the advice in my intro classes, to stay in one person’s perspective in a short story, no matter what (“The Babysitter” the exception that perhaps proves the rule). I’ve been reading more and more stories this year and that bend and break that rule, jumpt from character to character, and reading Eugenides may have put a nail in that coffin. I think I need to rethink how I teach point of view.

Oh, and I liked this book.

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