Detroit native Jeffrey Eugenides' characters search for home in "Fresh Complaint"
Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit in 1960, and later moved to Grosse Pointe. Since high school, Eugenides has lived in New York, Chicago, Berlin and many other places, but the influence of growing up in Michigan filters into many of his works. Detroit plays a major role in his novel Middlesex, which won the 2003 Pultizer Prize for fiction. Eugenides also set his debut novel The Virgin Suicides in metro Detroit.
Eugenides' new book, Fresh Complaint, (read an excerpt here) is his first collection of short stories. The mix of new and previously published works spans nearly 30 years of his career.
Just ahead of a return trip to Michigan for a reading at the University of Michigan Union in Ann Arbor on October 8, Eugenides spoke with Michigan Radio "Morning Edition" host Doug Tribou.
(Editor's note: The audio version of the interview above differs slightly from the text below because of time constraints.)
Doug Tribou: A run-down hunting lodge in the Florida Everglades, a dinner at a semi-vacant home in Ireland consisting entirely of artichokes and butter, and a tropical island in the Gulf of Siam. Those are just a few of the places where characters created by Jeffrey Eugenides find themselves as they search for a sense of home.
Eugenides’ latest book, Fresh Complaint, is his first collection of short stories.
Jeffrey Eugenides, welcome to Morning Edition on Michigan Radio.
Jeffrey Eugenides: Thank you. You made me seem like such a globetrotter. I think of myself as a Detroit writer and often writing about the Midwest, but I guess I’ve gotten out of the house a few times.
DT: [laughing] Well, let’s start with your life here in Michigan. You were born in Detroit in 1960, and raised in Grosse Pointe. Could you describe a bit about what life was like for you growing up in Michigan at that time?
JE: Well, I was born, as you said, in 1960 and we lived in [the Detroit neighborhood of] Indian Village for the first few years of my life. And then we moved to Chicago and then moved back to Grosse Pointe. My parents were both born in Detroit on the east side and my grandparents, who immigrated from Asia Minor, came to Detroit.
Those were tumultuous years – the ’67 disturbances – and the city was in the midst of white flight. The experience of growing up in the city, I think, has affected my writing because it acquainted me very early on with not only turmoil, but impermanence of human habitation and then the passing away of all things. There’s a certain melancholy in some of my early writing I think comes directly out of things which you relied on suddenly not being there anymore. Places that you went to see being closed down. The sense of a city being under pressure and considerably depopulated.
The experience of growing up in [Detroit] has affected my writing because it acquainted me very early on with not only turmoil, but impermanence of human habitation, and then the passing away of all things.
DT: One of the stories that really stuck out for me is “The Great Experiment.” The main character Kendall is a failed – or at least stalled – poet living in Chicago. He’s working for a prominent pornographer named Jimmy who now runs a boutique publishing company putting out new editions of early American texts like the Federalist Papers. I couldn’t help but think of Larry Flynt and “Hustler” and his later efforts on behalf of the First Amendment.
JE: And since ["Playboy" founder] Hugh Hefner just died ... we have to mention him and his crusades for free speech.
DT: That's right. And, as Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt did, Jimmy has made a lot of money on his original business and Kendall and a co-worker set up a scheme to embezzle from him. Before your first novel was published, you also worked for a literary organization and were starting to feel some pressure of not having the success you had hoped for as a writer. I assume the parallels stop short at the embezzling …
JE: I haven’t found a good way to embezzle, yet. I teach at Princeton though, so you never know. [chuckles] No, it was sort of a Breaking Bad idea before that show came out. I just thought, "What would push a person, even a rather retiring bookish person, to a life of criminality?" And during the bubble before the Great Recession, I was just aware of so much money sloshing around and people were making money, and they we refinancing their houses and they were driving Range Rovers and I couldn’t understand how they were making this money. Out of that situation, kind of resentment and feeling of being thwarted, I thought maybe I could come up with a failed poet who decides to take a little piece of the pie.
DT: And Kendall and his wife have this house. It's kind of a fixer-upper and their neighbors are more upscale. And he started out thinking it was a fun, hip project, but now it's sort of dragging him down. And I think the story speaks to this pressure, either internal or external, to kind of keep up with the Joneses.
JE: Right.... [T]hat’s a ‘50s idea, but it seems to have only gotten stronger. The idea of lifestyle being so important to us. Now we have to eat our artisanal tomatoes or we’re not really having the proper tomato and our house has to look like something from Dwell Magazine.
DT: Ancient grains.
JE: Exactly. It took me years to understand how to spell "quinoa," but now I do know how to do that.
And if you’re a literary person, or an artistic person, or lots of other things where you’re just not making the cash to [keep up with your neighbors], you feel less of a possibility of having an honorable poverty or an honorable comfort level.
DT: I recently picked up a used copy of a crime novel by the Detroit writer Jon A. Jackson called The Blind Pig. It was published 1978, it’s set in Detroit and right on the front cover it describes itself as a mystery in “One of America’s Most Violent Cities.” And last week, the FBI named Detroit as the most violent city in America per capita. And Detroit’s clearly in a different place today than it was in 1978 and there’s a lot of positive changes happening, but I wonder how has it felt for you from afar to see and hear those kinds of claims and headlines repeated over the decades about a city that you’re so fond of.
JE: It’s a strange position to be in as an expatriate Detroiter. When I was 17 I think the Renaissance Center opened. I believe I went there on prom night in high school. So the renaissance was happening then, the architecture told us. And now it’s many years later, and has the renaissance come to Detroit?
When I lived in Europe I was always meeting Europeans who were enamored of Detroit. They’d never been there, but they’d always thought it was so great, the idea of it. And I would be interviewed about its resurgence and because I’m a real Detroiter, I think, at heart, I have a certain cynicism about it. I know that Detroit is a big city and most of that city is still suffering. And good things are happening downtown and around downtown, which is great, but the amount of area that’s feeling the benefit is not great, so I’m always aware of that.
DT: A lot of people in Fresh Complaint seem to be searching for a feeling of home. And it’s not a wanderlust, but seems more like something they simply have to do. And the stories and journeys are all very different, but what keeps bringing you back to that idea of seeking that sense of place?
FE: Well, now you’ve become my therapist because I think that’s really true about me. I never know. I spend all my time thinking about where I should live and I’m always on the internet looking at real estate in different cities and imagining where would be the perfect place and something’s always wrong. For some reason, I can’t go. I can’t get a job there, or I don’t have citizenship. There’s always something wrong, so I must be seeking a home. Detroit is my home and I haven’t moved back, so maybe that’s the answer. That certainly is my fallback position.
DT: Do you feel satisfied with your sense of place today?
JE: No, not all. Not at all. I'm in New Jersey!
DT: [laughs] I used to live in New Jersey. I think it gets a bad rap.
JE: It does, but you know, you can only take so many statues to Bruce Springsteen. After a while, that's enough with those.
DT: Jeffrey Eugenides' new book is titled Fresh Complaint. It’s a collection of new and previously published stories spanning nearly three decades of his career. He joined me from the campus of Princeton University, where he teaches in New Jersey.... Jeffrey, thank you very much for your time.
JE: Thank you.