In the last few weeks, short stories have been coming up in conversation. I’ve found that people either love short stories or feel utterly unfamiliar with the genre. I am in the former camp, but I understand the impulse of the latter. Short stories can be much more difficult to engage with. The minute you start to understand a character, the story ends. It is harder to get your bearings. That is why short stories are exciting. Each one is a close look at one moment - in a life full of moments. Why did the author choose this moment to enter his or her character’s life? What can you learn about the rest of the character’s life through this one moment? What can you learn about yourself through the way that you engage with this chosen moment?
Jeffrey Eugenides first short story collection, Fresh Complaint, is for people who think they do not like short stories. Eugenides is a master at economical character development. For example, “Early Music,” one of my favorites in the collection, begins with this paragraph:
“As soon as he came in the front door, Rodney went straight to the music room. That was what he called it, wryly but not without some hope: the music room. It was a small, dogleg-shaped fourth bedroom that had been created when the building was cut up into apartments. It qualified as a music room because it contained his clavichord.”
“Early Music” is a story about a husband and father working to fulfill his dream of playing music professionally while financially supporting his wife, also an artist, and their two young children. Those specifics are not included in this first paragraph, but the carving and compartmentalizing Rodney and his wife both do to hold onto their passions is clearly demonstrated. The building in which Rodney lives becomes a metaphor for his life. It has been “cut up,” just as he has. His responsibilities at work, at home, and in his music room divide him into small spaces.
Much of this collection is about space. Eugenides’ characters are often seen creating a physical space in which to become a different version of themselves. These spaces range from a house in New England, to a hut in Siam, to a run-down hotel-turned-resort in Florida. Characters run away to these places with the intention of creating new lives - or of reclaiming the lives of their younger selves.
I like to think of short stories in a similar way. Authors create small spaces to explore one facet of a character’s personality, or one event that will impact the rest of his or her life. Each story becomes a room in a building and we, as readers, are allowed to peek in. What happens at the dinner table? What happens on a work call with a superior? What happens when a bill cannot be paid? What happens to your mind as you age?
The strongest stories in this collection are, as previously mentioned, “Early Music,” along with “Complainers,” “The Great Experiment,” and “Fresh Complaint.” These stories are complete, engaging, complex, relevant, and mainly hopeful. Eugenides has long been one of my favorite authors, and one of the things I love about his writing is that his female characters are written as authentically as his male characters. This is especially true in his novels (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot - I recommend all of them), but can be seen throughout this collection as well. He writes for everyone - even readers who don’t think they like short stories.
Listen to Ahkil Sharma read “Baster” by Jeffrey Eugenides on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast.