Jeffrey Eugenides’s latest short story collection is packed full of literary treats in case you haven’t read them when they originally appeared in The New Yorker and other equally prestigious magazines. The stories were written over a period of more than twenty years. Only the title story “Fresh Complaint” and “Complainers” were written specifically for the collection, but all of them feel undated, fresh and relevant.
“Complainers” focuses on two elderly women who are gradually losing their bearings. One of them is losing her mind, but has moments of lucidity. Every so often the two friends read each other a book about two Indian women expelled from their tribe because they complain too much. The two women survive in the wild by recovering the skills they used as girls. The parallels set up between the two sets of women sometimes seems a bit pat, but Eugenides’s skill and the fluid, life-like situations make the bibliogenetic plot function smoothly and movingly.
Sexuality looms interestingly large in this collection. Written in 2017 just before the MeToo# movement, “Fresh Complaint” artfully recounts the story of a man accused of statutory rape by a young woman who uses him to get out of an arranged marriage. Eugenides eschews any easy binary opposites, making the story an ethical and intellectual challenge.
“Baster” also stands as a partially cautionary rebuff to MeToo#. It dramatizes the fate-changing decision of Thomasina a woman whose biological clock has gone into over-tick at forty. Keen to get pregnant as quickly as possible and not knowing which donor to choose, Thomasina decides to mix the sperm of three of her friends and inseminate herself with the mixture: as the narrator remarks, “Everyone knows that men objectify women. But none of our sizing up of breasts and legs can compare with the cold-blooded calculation of a woman in the market for semen.” There are some hilarious moments in this story, as for example when Thomasina compares the various penises she has encountered over the years: “he had a bent, European-style penis and smelled like machine oil”.
“The Oracular Vulva” examines the plight of Dr Peter Luce, an anthropologist who studies the sexual mores of a tribe in Papua New Guinea. It’s a risk-taking story as the tribe’s main rite of passage involves boys swallowing the semen of the adult males in the tribe straight from the male nozzle. Eugenides shows how sexual shame interacts with culture in this humorous, disarming short story.
The collection as a whole does everything a short story collection should do: it’s entertaining, insightful, elegantly and cleverly written. Most of the stories stay with you months after you’ve read them.
A. M. Homes’s short story collection, Days of Awe, is definitely worth reading too, despite the fact that some of the stories seem a little bit over-long. Although the weaker passages are not quite up to par with the rest of Homes’s formidable work, the stronger stories resonate as powerfully as the best of the stories in the Eugenides collection.
Some of the more successful stories in Homes’s collection have a near-surreal flavour that energizes her fiction in surprising ways. In “A Prize for Every Player”, a family goes on a shopping spree only to find that one of the items on sale is a baby.
In “She Got Away”, ultimately the most moving story in the collection, a movie star comes into an insensate dying man’s hospital room to stab his foot with an ink pen. The paralyzed father’s children respond as if it’s a normal occurrence, a psychological reaction that is characteristic of both dreams and magic realism. Despite the farcical grotesquery in this story, Homes is able to shift the mood of the piece away from comedy to poignancy by the end of the story.
The title story “Days of Awe” is the most substantive piece in the collection, an amusing and insightful satire of international conferences. It tells the story of a meeting between “a transgressive novelist” (an obvious double for Homes) and a war correspondent. It plays on Homes’s trademark disjunctive effects as the newly-forged couple makes love to the sounds of war. There is also some interesting conflict when the two expose their divergent points of view over the respective power of journalism and fiction.
The novelist defends her trade, claiming that “’the point of fiction is to create a world that others can inhabit, to illuminate and tell a story that stirs empathy and compassion. And, asshole,” she adds, “fiction helps us to comprehend the incomprehensible”’. The war correspondent argues that journalism wins the day because it ultimately gets closer to the truth: “I have seen a mine explode under a woman’s feet as she’s carrying her baby, watched as the woman is sheared off below the waist and the baby becomes a projectile flying through the air, a vision that in another context might be magical, but here it is magic turned to murder as the baby lands on a car, still, eyes fixed, heart stopped, a life smashed”.
The binary opposition of fiction and fact is one that resonates also on the literary marketplace where fact-based writing and realism are increasingly overshadowing the potential of magic realism. And yet, as the reporter points out, the horrors of our times make dark magic seem real.
It would be a wonderful thing indeed if Homes wrote a fully-fledged magic realist novel. She has the bold imaginative strength such a novel requires. It could even bring the mode back into fashion a good two decades after it fell under the radar.
Words by Erik Martiny.
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