Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

So begins the story of Calliope Stephanides. It’s an engaging beginning, but unusual too. In this first sentence Jeffrey Eugenides reveals not only the twist at the heart of Middlesex, but the time-frame against which it will be set. It’s a bold move but one that works spectacularly. By answering readers’ first question – what will happen? – he opens up all the questions that novels are most adept at tackling: the hows and whys of what happens, the complexities and uncertainties of a situation. And there are few situations more complex and uncertain than Calliope’s.

Now in his 40s, Cal has been living as an inter-sex man since he was a teenager, when his life as a girl suddenly ended. He feels the urge to tell his story for the first time.

After decades of neglect, I find myself thinking about departed great-aunts and –uncles, long lost grandfathers, unknown fifth cousins, or, in the case of an inbred family like mine, all those things in one. And so before it’s too late I want to get it down for good: this rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother’s own mid-western womb.

Middlesex is this story. Part history of a single mutated gene, it’s also about the social forces that shape the lives that carry it, the history that seeps through nooks and crannies into everything that takes place. It is reminiscent of many family saga novels: Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The first page reads like a reworking of the opening to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It’s all about the process of transformation and reinvention. Yet the inter-gender aspect is only one way in which this is expressed. Over the course of its epic eighty-year narrative the lives of three generations of a Greek family are shaped by transformation, both external and internal, imposed upon and wilfully embraced. It is part Greek tragedy in which the characters are chained to a fate decided long before their births, and part American dream in which anyone can make something of themselves through determination and hard work. It takes commonly considered polar opposites – nature versus nurture, male versus female, tradition versus science – and brings them into conflict, resulting in investigation of their middle grounds, a complex hermaphroditic mixture which embraces both sides at once.

The battlegrounds for these opposites are times of great flux: adolescence, immigration, turbulent social climates. Calliope’s story is actually one that many can relate to, especially the descriptions of trying to fit in as a teenager, fearful that something is desperately different about you, yet not really believing it to be true. Cal’s omniscient voice narrates compellingly as both young girl and grown man. It is convincing as both partly because it rejects the notion that there is great difference between the genders, that the greater disparities are between the ways that individuals write, think, and approach the world than genders per se. This is reflected in the process that leads Calliope to recreate herself as Cal which is not so much brought about by a discovery of her gender but a threat to her self and need to reinvent. And the transformation is not one of female to male, but about acknowledging that he has always been both and remains so.

Fearsomely researched and well executed, Middlesex is packed with titbits of knowledge and learning, from the municipal history of Detroit to the complex social and biological determinants of gender. Yet Eugenides controls the output of factual information carefully so that it doesn’t feel that the research is driving the plot. Above all, Middlesex strikes me as a fantastic example of an author writing about what he knows. Instead of imagining the entire novel from nothing, Middlesex grew from his trying to imagine himself as Calliope, faced with the same genetic mystery. The history, Diaspora and landscape of Middlesex stems from his own experience. And it shows. As Calliope notes, “The tiniest bit of truth made credible the greatest lies.”

Like the spokes at the heart of Detroit’s road network or the silkworms spinning their thread throughout the plot, Eugenides understands symbolism and uses it to create a world in which everything is significant. Everything is the pistol on Chekhov’s wall. Middlesex is one of those books one could write about forever, and reproduce huge passages in an effort to convey its scope and the quality of its prose. It’s funny too, and audacious and thrilling. But you’ll just have to read it for yourself. I’ll finish with this wondrous passage which seems to sum it all up.

Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.

Bloomsbury, September 2003, 544pp, 9780747561620

11 comments on “Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

  1. SamRuddock
    May 21, 2010

    I couldn’t find a decent place to include this lengthy passage, but for those interested in the gender aspect of Middlesex, I thought I’d post it here instead.

    “It’s no surprise that Luce’s theory of gender identity was popular in the early seventies. Back then, as my first barber put it, everybody wanted to go unisex. The consensus was that personality was primarily determined by environment, each child a blank slate to be written on. My own medical story was only a reflection of what was happening psychologically to everyone in those years. Women were becoming more like men and men were becoming more like women. For a little while during the seventies it seemed that sexual difference might pass away. But then another thing happened.
    “It was called evolutionary biology. Under its sway, the sexes were separated again, men into hunters and women into gatherers. Nurture no longer formed us; nature did. Impulses of hominids dating from 20,000 B.C. were still controlling us. And so today on television and in magazines you get the current simplifications. Why can’t men communicate? (Because they had to be quiet on the hunt.) Why do women communicate so well? (Because they had to call out to one another where the fruits and berries were.) Why can men never find things around the house? (Because they have a narrow field of vision, useful in tracking prey.) Why can women find things so easily? (Because in protecting the nest they were used to scanning a wide field.) Why can’t women parallel-park? (Because low testosterone inhibits spatial ability.) Why won’t men ask for directions? (Because asking for directions is a sign of weakness, and hunters never show weakness.) This is where we are today. Men and women, tired of being the same, want to be different again.”
    “Therefore it’s also no surprise that Dr. Luce’s theory had come under attack by the 1990s. The child was no longer a blank slate; every newborn had been inscribed by genetics and evolution. My life exists at the centre of this debate. I am, in a sense, its solution. At first when I disappeared, Dr Luce was desperate, feeling that he had lost his greatest find. But later, possibly realizing why I had run away, he came to the conclusion that I was not evidence in support of his theory but against it. He hoped I would stay quiet. He published his articles about me and prayed that I would never show up to refute them.
    “But it’s not as simple as that. I don’t fit into any of these theories. Not the evolutionary biologists’ and not Luce’s either. My psychological makeup doesn’t accord with essentialism popular in the intersex movement, either. Unlike other so-called male pseudohermaphrodites who have been written about in the press, I never felt out of place being a girl. I still don’t feel entirely at home among men. Desire made me cross over to the other side, desire and the facticity of my body. In the twentieth century, genetics brought the Ancient Greek notion of fate in to our very cells. This new century we’ve just begun has found something different. Contrary to all expectations, the code underlying our being is woefully inadequate. Instead of the expected 200,000 genes, we have only 30,000. Not many more than a mouse.
    “And so a strange new possibility is arising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”

  2. annebrooke
    May 21, 2010

    It’s fascinating stuff indeed, Sam – thanks very much for this. A review to make us all ponder.


  3. Moira
    May 21, 2010

    You have NO idea how long it took me to work out the significance of the title, Sam …

    This really sounds thoroughly intriguing – and the quotes you selected are almost hypnotic … you read them and you think “Crumbs!” (well, I did, anyway …).

    I don’t know the author at all. I haven’t googled him … what else, if anything has he written?

  4. SamRuddock
    May 21, 2010

    The interesting thing, Moira, is that it’s actually the name of the road that Calliope grows up on (and Eugenides did too). The reflection on the intersex aspect is an unspoken motif which works rather well – and is, I imagine, perhaps where the whole idea of Middlesex came from.

    Glad you liked the quotes: I honestly could have picked any number of similarly intriguing ones. In fact, here’s another, shorter one from Lefty and Desdamona’s arrival in the States.
    “The Statue of Liberty’s gender changed nothing. It was the same here as anywhere: men and their wars.”

    Jeffrey Eugenides was a Granta best young American authors a few years back and has since gone on to write two novels. The first, The Virgin Suicides, was turned into a (quite good) film. Middlesex was published in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year. He’s a good author, well worth checking out.

  5. Moira
    May 21, 2010

    Ah. I’ve just seen ‘Author of the Virgin Suicides’ printed on the cover. Minus several million for observation, Briggs …

    Modern fiction is virtually a closed book to me (as you may have noticed … *embarrassed cough*) but I really like the sound of this one.

  6. Jackie
    May 21, 2010

    My local book group did this book a year or so ago & it led to a really lively discussion.There is a lot of food for thought, as Moira guesses, especially when one starts unwinding some of the layers & history in the book, which was also a social commentary wrapped in fiction.
    But this is so much better than “The Tin Drum”, which I thought sadistic & awful. Ugh! It’s probably closer to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in it’s style.
    I recall that wonderful unisex time in the 70’s & wanted it to last forever.
    Thanks for the good review of a complicated book, Sam.

  7. JoV
    May 22, 2010

    Great review. I have it sitting on my shelf for ages. Maybe I should stop borrowing library books so that I could get on to this!

    very well researched and thought provoking review.

  8. Sam Ruddock
    May 22, 2010

    I agree Jackie; the social history of Detroit was probably my favourite aspect of Middlesex. I knew very little about Detroit other than the Ford stuff before reading it but was amazed at how well he wrote about his home city and how much love he clearly feels for the place.

    I haven’t actually read The Tin Drum but have it sitting on my bookshelf awaiting a read. Sadistic and awful sound intriguing in theory, though I’m rarely keen on that sort of book in practice.

  9. Michelle
    May 26, 2010

    Ah, I’ve been meaning to read this for years. It’s currently collecting dust on my TBR shelf. I will get to it one day, it sounds fascinating.

  10. rosyb
    May 27, 2010

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this post and what to comment. You see, I read Middlesex a while ago and I remember thinking “crikey! this is seriously admirable well-written stuff” and yet…and yet…I just didn’t really love it and somehow the impression it left has not really remained that strong. I was feeling a bit bad about this and I looked around other people’s reactions last night and noticed a few people mentioning a kind of distance in the writing – a sort of reserve. And I think it is something like this for me. I felt somehow disappointed that there wasn’t a bit more connection with the main character and a bit more psychological insight – or just insight about human beings and how they think and do things. I thought the idea of the intersex narrator was so fascinating and yet I found, at the end of the day, that Cal felt too much like a symbol rather than a person to me. Does that make sense? A bit consciously like the Tiresias figure. The all-knowing man-woman – rather than really giving me a proper sense and a proper exploration of men and women and their different experiences in society.

    But it may be I should go back and have another read.

    The other thing I read was an interesting interview with the author where he said he was trying to use the progression of the novel almost like a movement from the epic style of past works to the more psychological modern novel…I am probably quoting that all wrong, but it was something along those lines. I wondered if it was this level of self-consciousness and this experiment that ended up pushing me away a little and gave that sense of detachment.

    I don’t mind authorial detachment and I love the use of the omniscient and the playful story-telling and he is so skillful it is marvellous. But I did miss a sense of insight somewhere along the lines. Perhaps, though, I had the wrong expectations and the book is more about place than person? I don’t know.

    What do you think, Sam?

  11. rolodexter
    June 14, 2010

    As usual, the film adaptation of this just isn’t as textured as the story you get with the novel. Not to mention the fact that the sequence of things, and events just aren’t really the way they are in the book.

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