Short stories can be as challenging to write as novels, says Jeffrey Eugenides. Known for penning intricate novels like The Virgin Suicides and Pulitzer Prize-winner Middlesex, Eugenides has completed his first story collection, Fresh Complaint. It contains stories written as long ago as 1988, many originally published in the New Yorker.
“It's a strange thing that we start creative writing students off writing short stories when they require the kind of expertise that only a person writing for a long time is able to handle," he says. "The novel is more forgiving, while with the short story there's little room to work. You need to set up what the story is going to be about very quickly before you soon have to prepare to shut down the story."
The difficultly is compounded when the writing comes in layers as it does for Eugenides.
"I have an expansive imagination," he says. "I link ideas to other ideas. The original idea for Middlesex was a slim autobiography by someone who was intersex. Then I went into the science of it. The genetics led into family, which then led into history. It became a much bigger idea than it was originally conceived. With the short story it takes a lot of fussing around to at least suggest that same density."
Eugenides entered the project with no set theme but his editor pointed out that it had been lurking all along. "We see a young man getting older and meeting with a number of disappointments," Eugenides says of the stories. "It was not something I was intentionally working with. It rose of its own accord."
The American Dream is another of the collection's layers. Eugenides says it's likely tied to memories of his late father, a son of Greek immigrants who became a successful and wealthy businessman who lost it all in his later years. "There's both an awareness of the viability of the American Dream and its fragility," Eugenides says.
The story "Great Experiment" tackles the issue head on with references to Alexis de Tocqueville's mid-1800scritique of U.S. society, Democracy in America.
In the 2008 story, Eugenides both incorrectly predicts a Hillary Clinton presidency and presages an underlying cynicism in the Trump era. "Bush-Clinton-Bush-maybe Clinton. That's not a democracy, OK?" a former poet turned publishing house worker rationalizing embezzlement says. "That's a dynamic monarchy. What are people like us supposed to do? What would be so bad if we just skimmed a little cream off the top? Just a little skimming."
The collection's title comes from a legal term for a prompt report of a sexual assault—a telling of the tale to either a law officer or a friend. It's also the title of the book's closing tale, which like its opener, "Complainers," is brand new.
"Complainers," is about an enduring friendship between an older woman with creeping dementia and a women 20 years her junior. While fiction, the story grew from Eugenides' desire to understand the dementia that engulfed his own mother.
"That story was written more than any other out of personal need to connect with my mother while she was slipping more and more away," he says. "Her dementia got worse and worse. It was a way to manifest her to myself. I tried to write about my mother's longtime friendship. What I didn’t know mirrors the fraying of her mind."
Eugenides' stories were mainly written in lulls between novel writing. (He's at work on a new novel now, but the plot is still germinating.) "I relish the ability it's given me to pay attention to being alive," he says of his fiction-writing career.
Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin.