I was in Austin this past weekend doing a panel for Nasty Women, but I had the first day of the festival all to myself. One of the big events I’d been dying to attend was the panel with Jeffrey Eugenides and Claire Messud. It’s a six hour drive from South Texas up to Austin, and I used the opportunity to finish listening to Fresh Complaint, a collection of stories written between 1988 to 2017. With the exception of the title story, most of the stories had been previously published in other places.
Early in the panel, Eugenides bemoaned a common description he’d been seeing in reviews of his book: it’s about depressed middle-aged men. “It’s not just about that,” he protested. “There’s a story about two older women, and there’s a story about a Pakistani teenager.”
Yeah. About that.
SPOILER ALERT!!! I HAVE WORDS. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
Most of the stories indeed feature depressed, aging men. And aside from a couple of stories, I thought the collection was mostly unremarkable. I often found myself drifting off and fighting to stay focused, but the last story, “Fresh Complaint,” brought me back to reality. In a book featuring a whole lot of white people, the sudden, specific inclusion of an Indian-American teenager named Prakrti demanded my attention. My antennas perked up, and not in a good way.
Prakrti, you see, is a seventeen-year-old who’s being pushed by her mother to start talking to the upstanding Indian guy who’s set to one day become her husband through an arranged marriage. But Prakrti is just a normal American girl. She doesn’t want an arranged marriage.
In a seemingly different timeline, a pretty girl in a college sweatshirt approaches a brilliant, middle-aged astrophysicist at a book signing. She manages to seduce the poor fool, and the two meet in a clumsy encounter in his hotel room. She changes her mind and leaves before he’s able to penetrate her, and he goes back to his married life in England, confused about the whole thing.
That girl is Prakrti, and she’s not nineteen. She’s still seventeen, and now she’s crying rape. Because clearly if she’s not a virgin — not by her choice, of course — no one will want her for an arranged marriage.
At this point in the audiobook, I literally started screaming “JEFFREY. WHAT THE FUCK?” in my car.
Yup. There’s one story featuring a woman of color, and her cultural traditions drive her to ruin the life of an innocent white man. If that ain’t tone deaf, especially considering the current #metoo backlash (“Everyone is crying rape now, UGH. What happened to innocent until proven guilty?”), I don’t know what is.
People of color do make the occasional appearance in other stories. In “Air Mail,” white dudebro backpackers visit Asia to do douchey things like find enlightenment, only to come down with a nasty case of dysentery. And the story Eugenides mentioned in his panel about the two older women? They were inspired to take charge of life by a novel about Native American women. Speaking of Native Americans, “The Oracular Vulva” features a doctor (the same one from Middlesex, apparently) who goes to study an isolated indigenous tribe where pedophilia is a valid thing. Really.
Basically, people of color exist in this book only to serve as catalysts for white people’s character arcs.
Here’s the thing: Eugenides has always been a white-male-gazey author. For the most part, I’ve been okay with that. (Full disclosure: I actually have signed copies of all of his books. Except this one, because fuck that.) The Marriage Plot works for me because he writes white privileged academia so well. And I have issues with The Virgin Suicides — the Lisbon sisters are flat, existing entirely in the boys’ male gaze — but even then, I’m kind of meh about the whole thing.
But Fresh Complaint? There’s no excuse. If this is his attempt at diversifying his writing, I’m totally okay with him ignoring brown people and sticking to depressed white men from now on.
Fresh Complaint was released in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I listened to the audiobook version published by Macmillan Audio.