As the Ann Arbor sky became a technicolor blaze last night, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jeffrey Eugenides, took the stage at the Rogel Ballroom. The reading was hosted by local indie bookstore, Literati, as part of their visiting author series. A crowd of over a hundred descended upon the Michigan Union to listen to Eugenides read from his latest collection of short stories, Fresh Complaint.
Eugenides is a Guggenheim fellow, a two time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and recipient of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex. He currently teaches creative writing at Princeton University. A Detroit native, Eugenides returned to the Midwest happy to be surrounded by the “intelligent and down to earth” people which he noted are a staple of this region.
Fresh Complaint is a compilation of short stories spanning Eugenides writing career. For the reading he chose a piece titled, “Baster,” written in 1995 and originally published in The New Yorker. He told the audience he was nostalgic from his return to the Midwest and in this spirit was inspired to read this story instead of the newer ones in the collection. The piece was classic Eugenides, a humor-infused narrative dealing with a serious subject. It tells the story of forty year old, Tomasina, who is reminded of her ever decreasing fertility and decides she wants to have a baby. With no husband or boyfriend in sight, she begins assessing her options and the prospects. The story is a reminder that nature and our desires don’t always align. Tomasina is everything one loves from a Eugenides character: strong-willed, complex, and witty. She’s much like Eugenides himself.
From inspecting the tongues of men to determine if their sperm is suitable for procreation, to picturing the faces of her unborn children pressed against the glass of a “ghostly” school bus: Tomasina led the crowd of listeners through a wide array of emotion. In the story Eugenides writes, “She was glad she’d done it then. So as not to have regrets.” It was apparent by the audience's engagement and silent nods every so often, that they were glad Eugenides was in a reminiscent mood. They were contented with the chance to have met Tomasina through his words.
After reading “Baster,” Eugenides reclined in an armchair while being interviewed by a former colleague. She opened by asking him about his relationship to the form of the short story since he’s known for his longer novels. Eugenides noted that the form leads the stories to be “like little puzzles when you’re working on them. They’re just maddening.” The short-story is a challenging form. It asks the author to provide with limited space, but it was clear through the crowd's warm reception of the story that Eugenides has the gift to do so.
Moving on, the interviewer pointed out that many of his works are set in the Midwest, a characteristic which have led many to call Eugenides a regionalist. In response, he said he writes about this area because “it’s just so much a part of me. So much of America happened here and I think often it’s so misunderstood.” In his writing, his fiction is deeply rooted in his own reality. A characteristic which leaves his prose feeling genuine and as relatable and jovial as he appeared on stage last night. To finish the interview, he was asked if he had advice for young writers. In a call for authenticity he offered, “Don’t be embarrassed by what you write.”
Eugenides tackled the reading, however brief, with confidence and openness. He said that Fresh Complaint is “almost like a posthumous book.” A book filled with the same nostalgia which was present in the room last night. Like his charge to future writers, the stories in the collection are fresh in their authenticity. Eugenides' words are an integral part of the American canon, but even more so integral to the Midwest. Though his voice speaks broadly, his words were at home in Ann Arbor on that quiet Sunday evening.