Jeffrey Eugenides’ first short story collection is, like Joshua Ferris’ The Dinner Party & Other Stories published earlier in the year, a sort of summation, bringing together stories written throughout the course of the last thirty years, run out of chronology (much as DeLillo did in The Angel Esmerelda), the earliest ‘Capricious Gardens’ written in 1988, the latest, the title story finished this year. Fans of Eugenides may delight in stories such as ‘The Oracular Vulva’ (written in 1999, a full three years before the Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex, but concerning similar gender fluidity) and ‘Air Mail’, which is narrated by Mitchell from Eugenides’ novel, The Marriage Plot. But you don’t need to have read anything previously by Eugenides to enjoy this collection.
There are 10 stories here and, as in Ferris’ collection, many of them are narrated by errant men of one kind or another – from Rodney in ‘Early Music (struggling to provide for his family, his marriage in all kinds of trouble, ignoring debt mounting to hold on to a clavichord that comes to represent his fading dreams of musical success – a story that finds its echo in ‘Timeshare, where a father and son stand either sides of fading economic success) to Charlie D in ‘Find the Bad Guy’ (flouting the rules of an injunction to spy on his family from the garden), from Wally Mars in ‘Baster’ (carrying a torch for an old flame who would rather resort to a baster of sperm from a local eligible male than express any regret for the baby she aborted after her relationship with Wally came to an end) to Sean in ‘Capricious Gardens’ (earnest in his attempts to bed a young houseguest, blocked at every turn by circumstance).
Like in Ferris’ collection, there is weakness here, weak men in particular – the social anthropologist succumbing to a culturally correct handjob in ‘The Oracular Vulva’, the former poet Kendall taking a criminal path in ‘Great Experiment’ – but more importantly, there is comedy (particularly ‘Capricious Gardens’, which, like The Marriage Plot, expertly shows us a situation from the point of view of every character involved) and erudition (Alexis de Tocqueville’s musings cast an expert shadow through the aforementioned ‘Great Experiment’, the love of Bach that informs ‘Early Music’). Eugenides has powerful narrative authority, these stories, themselves the epitomy of what you might call a New Yorker story, grip you by the hand and amuse and compel in equal measure.
Any Cop?: A really satisfying collection of short stories of such a calibre as to have you returning to Eugenides earlier books for a re-read