"Fresh Complaint" is a short story collection published in 2017 by Jeffrey Eugenides, whose most famous work is "The Virgin Suicides". The stories in it are literary fiction, meaning they take place in contemporary times and have no fantastic or even surrealistic elements.
People who have been following me lately might be worried about me, and my consumption of media. Are my entertainment choices strictly limited to discount bin DVDs and discount bin comics? Fear not, because here I read some serious literary fiction, although it was also purchased at the Dollar Tree.
The ten stories, which are from 20 to 50 pages, cover a variety of situations. They are usually told over short time periods, but with flashbacks that can explain how the narrator got into their circumstances. The stories were published between 1988 and 2017, with most of them from the 1990s and 2000s. The stories are slice-of-life vignettes, often based on people dealing with unhappy circumstances. In one, a recently single Irish man attempts to seduce an American hitchhiker. In another, a man from a formerly middle-class family deals with their rapidly dwindling fortunes as they attempt to run a Florida timeshare resort. A man deals with jealousy as his ex-girlfriend seeks artificial insemination. A woman tries to break her older friend with early dementia out of assisted living. A man in a dead-end job is presented with an attempt to embezzle. Most of the stories deal with middle-class dissatisfaction, and attempts to alleviate it---with mixed results.
Probably the most representative story is "Early Music", a 24 page story about a man with a background in music theory who has an office job and who has bought, on credit, an expensive clavichord that he practices on a half hour a day. He can't afford the payments on it, and he is fielding calls from people who want to repossess it. His wife is trying to go into business selling crafts, he has twin children, and he can't afford his household maintenance. He looks back at a time when he toured Germany playing classical music as a university student, and is dealing with the disappointment of not having an artistic career. At the end of the story, his clavichord is going to be repossessed, and he has to deal with being just a "patients record specialist" at an HMO.
The limits to this type of story is that what is at risk in this story--- and there always has to be some risks--- is his sense of pride and fulfillment. The collection agency are aggressive only in that they repossess a luxury item. He is in no physical danger, nor is he in danger of having his home foreclosed on, or of not having basic necessities. The tension in this story is finding meaning and self-actualization in a world that provides basic necessities almost without question.
Of the stories published in this collection, five were originally published in The New Yorker, and these stories could be considered perfect examples of New Yorker fiction. This is no way meant to be an insult: I found the stories humorous and engaging, and I read through the book in a few days.
The problem is that one of the basic premises of fiction like this has been undone by the year 2020. This story collection was published in 2017, just as the Trump administration was beginning, but most of the stories, and its mindset, come out of the 1990s. Institutions are safe and predictable, and middle class life is defined by those institutions. Sometimes those institutions can't address deeper questions and needs, and so literary fiction deals with the gap as the protagonist, educated, rational and middle-class, stands on the penultimate step of Maslow's hierarchy of needs and wonders how to get over. But, for example, the first story deals with a woman in middle-age whose older friend is isolated from society in an assisted living facility. She helps her friend leave to live on her own. But that story depends on the idea that while assisted living is soulless, it is still safe, and still there. Over the past year, and especially over the past few weeks, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it so it looks like many senior care facilities won't be able to protect their residents from the infection, or keep their staffing levels. From when I am writing this, it looks like sometime in the next few weeks, across the United States, people will no longer have access to basic medical service. One of the premises of literary fiction is that certain institutions--- medicine, education, a reasonably fair legal system--- will always be there, and that the tension and conflict will always be internal. And after 2020, this pillar has been destroyed. Reading this story collection in 2020, it seemed just as far from my life as the space fantasies of "Tenkai Knights" or the Western romance of "The Voice of the Gun". What is the future of literary fiction in a world where there is not always a hospital bed available?