Boy-Girl-Greek-American: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

In the grand tradition of the family saga which includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and, to a lesser extent, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury comes American author Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which follows the Greek-American Stephanides family over three generations culminating in the biological and spiritual identity crisis of the narrator, one Calliope “Cal” Stephanides.

Middlesex

Borrowed from my boss, Suzette. Picador, 2002.

Ever since this novel came out a decade ago, I’d been under the impression that it was primarily about the experiences of a sexual hermaphrodite, as evidenced by the title. Calliope starts life as a girl, and spends thirteen years believing she is female until, upon hitting puberty, she discovers she is actually a boy. She has a rare condition that results in a not-quite-penile “crocus” which doesn’t fully show itself until adolescence. And so at age thirteen, Calliope becomes Cal.

Serendipitously, the Stephanides family lives in an ultra-modern multi-level house on a street called Middlesex, which becomes a metonym for this period of Cal’s life. This is one of several heavy-handed devices Eugenides employs that, in my opinion, keep this great book from being truly genius.

More on that—but as I said, despite my first impressions, Cal’s condition and sexual identity are not necessarily the most important part of the book, though they contribute an intriguing backdrop. It essentially is a family saga; more precisely, an American immigrant family saga. With Cal leading the way, we start in Bithynios, a tiny Greek village in that netherland that has historically alternated between being part of Greece and being part of Turkey. This is where Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are from. The Greco-Turkish War is on. After their village is destroyed by Turkish troops, they escape to America with a bereaved Armenian doctor in tow.

Greeks mourn their dead after the massacre at Smyrna, Greco-Turkish War, which Lefty and Desdemona escape.

Greeks mourn their dead after the massacre at Smyrna, which Lefty and Desdemona escape.

Everything about this novel is inexorable. Cal never lets us forget that all of this history results, ultimately, in him. Overtly, this means that his grandparents’ incest (clearly a prerequisite to any family saga), his parents’ lesser incest (first cousins), and the eighty-something Armenian doctor he gets stuck with as a child because of family loyalty contribute to his abnormal condition and the belatedness with which it is discovered. Less overtly, this novel is about the immigrant experience, about coming to America, about being in America and belonging elsewhere and always having that somewhere else inside you. And so here also does his family’s story constitute his own identity. Everything is teleological.

Greektown, Detroit.

Greektown, Detroit, today.

Middlesex is also hugely informed by Eugenides’ own experiences. First of all, Eugenides… Stephanides. Same number of syllables. Second, Greek. (Jeffrey E. is half.) Third, growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, as he did. Cal spends his early childhood in Greektown in Detroit until the city’s auto boom begins to bust, at which point his father’s restaurant fails and then the race riots occur. One thing I liked: in a subversion of textbook-American history, Cal portrays these as a legitimate revolution:

“So was it a riot or a guerilla uprising? Let me answer that question with other questions… Why had General Throckmorton deployed his tanks on the East Side, miles from the rioting? Was that the kind of thing you did to subdue an unorganized gang of snipers? Or was it more in keeping with military strategy? Was it like establishing a front line in a war? Believe whatever you want. I was seven years old and followed a tank into battle and saw what I saw. It turned out that when it finally happened, the revolution wasn’t televised. On TV they called it only a riot.” (250-251)

Also, Eugenides spent time in Berlin in the early 2000s, which is where we find Cal as a forty-something man as he narrates his chronicle.

I’m always interested in the ways authors have or have not lived the experiences of their protagonists—the geography, the chronology, the demography, the education, career, relationships. Like my favorite WWII authors: Joseph Heller was stationed in Italy as a pilot who had to fly missions, hence Yossarian. J.D. Salinger served in Europe and afterward dealt with stress and emotional trauma, hence Seymour Glass, and also the narrator of “For Esmé.” Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when the Americans firebombed it, hence Billy Pilgrim and Slaughterhouse-Five.

This, in turn, makes me wonder if one can truly write about something they haven’t lived. How do you fabricate something out of nothing? How do you write honestly about a place, a time, a person you never were? Makes me think of a quote from Angels in America– another work about this great land of ours– by (best character) Harper Pitt: “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions… Nothing unknown is knowable.”

(And this is why I can’t write fiction.)

Eugenides has written three novels, and while certain elements of his life undoubtedly informed The Virgin Suicides (growing up a boy in 1970s suburbia) and The Marriage Plot (I haven’t read it yet, but probably being an English grad student in the 1980s), Middlesex feels the most like it very closely follows his own life’s trajectory. Besides, of course, the hermaphrodite part, though who knows if this isn’t some vague externalization of an inward gender struggle.

Also, like any family saga worth a darn, the genealogy is stretched and overlaid onto the macrohistory that is occurring in the background, in the real world, like a less silly Forrest Gump. Henry Ford makes an appearance, because Lefty works in his factory. (An awesome scene where Lefty’s English class puts on a “melting pot” pageant at which Ford is in attendance, complete with the students in ethnic costumes climbing into a fake pot and changing into red-white-and-blue, as teachers stir with giant spoons.) The riots. Cal does LSD in San Francisco. Bigger things are happening; the family’s story is bigger than itself.

This is a beautiful book, and it contained moments of brilliant honesty, but I found myself a little disappointed in what occasionally felt like a simple lack of originality. Some of the more florid passages seemed ripped from a Creative Writing 701 course at Stanford (where Eugenides earned his M.A.), wonderfully executed but missing a soul. The devices were occasionally too clever, the prose too self-aware.

Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's film version of The Virgin Suicides.

Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s film version of The Virgin Suicides.

It may be that I was disappointed following my reading (and re-reading) of Eugenides’ 1993 debut novel The Virgin Suicides, which was dazzlingly original: an entire novel told from the point of view of no one in particular, a mass of “neighborhood boys” who witness from afar the tragedy of the Lisbon sisters, in the style of a Greek chorus. The whole narrative of that book felt heavy, dreamlike, unlike anything else I’ve come across. As wonderful and engaging as it is, Middlesex just wasn’t as revolutionary.

“Why should I have thought I was anything other than a girl? Because I was attracted to a girl? That happened all the time. It was happening more than ever in 1974. It was becoming a national pastime. My ecstatic intuition about myself was now deeply suppressed. How long I would have managed to keep it down is anybody’s guess. But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born.” (388)

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One response

  1. […] (which I reviewed on my book blog) is an epic chronicle of Cal Stephanides, born Calliope, a hermaphroditic boy who spends the first […]

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