A couple weeks ago, I had a bookstore dream. (It happened in Seattle, a place with its own reason for bookstore dreams.) In my dream, I was a little upset, see, because I was growing tired of a long-standing arrangement which had a bookstore being set up in my apartment living room every weekend. Who knows how long this had been going on, but I was tired of it. Why? Because their merchandise was getting mixed up with my own personal book collection, such that I was coming home to find books missing from my bookshelf, having been sold accidentally to my living-room bookstore’s clientele (which, apparently, I had no shares, rent, or financial stake in). Most annoyingly, I was missing single books from trilogy collections: The Golden Compass, The Rosy Crucifixion, The Lord of the Rings. Just one or two from each. I was working up the nerve to tell the living-room bookstore staff to please keep their books separate from mine, before the dream melted back into unconsciousness or some other dream, and was thus never resolved.
As a dream, this was less a nightmare than it was simply absurd. The fact that I so willingly accepted the premise that my living room was a bookstore, in retrospect, revealed the total unreality of the memory. But were that absurdity to be transposed onto real life—if such things happened, if there was such a lack of respect for reality that a retail business could be set up, sans permission, in my personal space—it would be a nightmare, wouldn’t it?
I’d never read Franz Kafka. I knew him as the waking-up-as-a-bug guy. I knew him as an overused adjective (Kafka-esque, successfully skewed in an episode of the now-defunct animated show “Mission Hill”). I knew him from Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” in which Borges argues, intriguingly, that an artist creates his own predecessors, who previously have no reason to be thought of as part of a continuous tradition. Most of all, I knew that his shit was supposed to be weird.
The Trial is like one long nightmare. It’s very similar to Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, which together seem to form a tradition of early 20th-century European surrealist imprisonment literature. Except that unlike Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C., Joseph K., Kafka’s protagonist, is never actually imprisoned, in the literal sense.
Instead, at the beginning of The Trial, Joseph K. comes home to find that he has been accused of a crime by the Court and will, at some undefined point in the future, face trial for it. He is not imprisoned. He is not told the nature of his crime or its punishment. He is simply allowed to go on living his life, knowing that someday, he will have a trial.
The rest of the book follows K. through his tribulations as he goes about his normal life working in a bank downtown while also trying to work out his legal defense and learn the ins and outs of the courts. K. learns that the Court is basically a horrifying, immovable bureaucracy:
“For although the pettiest lawyer might be to some extent capable of analyzing the state of things in the Court, it never occurred to the lawyers that they should suggest or insist on any improvements in the system, while—and this was very characteristic—almost every accused man, even quite simple people among them, discovered from the earliest stages a passion for suggesting reforms which often wasted time and energy that could have been better employed in other directions. The only sensible thing was to adapt oneself to existing conditions. Even if it were possible to alter a detail for the better here or there—but it was simple madness to think of it—any benefit arising from that would profit clients in the future only, while one’s own interests would be immeasurably injured by attracting the attention of the ever-vengeful officials. Anything rather than that!” (151)
K.’s reality often becomes surreal—absurd—and this is unsettling, to say the least. His visits to Court buildings and his dealings with those who work for the Courts—and, increasingly, those who don’t but end up having weird connections to them anyway—have a disorienting effect. The buildings themselves are labyrinthine and oppressively stuffy. All of the people K. meets seem less like subjective figures with their own thoughts, feelings, and ambitions than they do simulated humans who exist only to play a part—or a conspiracy—in K.’s life: dream-people. (Shuddery.) And everything, ultimately, seems to lead back to the Courts.
The most absurd, and hence the most nightmarish, part for me was when K. visits a painter who might have some inside connections that will help him navigate the Court. He drives way out to an obscure part of town, climbs a winding, claustrophobic staircase followed by a trio of silly whispering teenage girls, then enters the painter’s strange apartment, where the painter is working on a portrait of a judge that “strikingly resembled the portrait hanging in the lawyer’s office.”
The apartment is very stuffy, and at one point during their conversation the painter offers to open a door; the door he indicates is, oddly, in the wall behind his bed, partway blocked, and K. hadn’t even noticed it until that point. (Like in dreams when things are one way, then they abruptly change, but you have to accept that they’d been that second way the whole time and it’s maybe your cognizance and not the reality that is flawed.)
After a long conversation with the painter, K. finally decides he must leave, and this is where it gets really freaky. The painter for the first time opens the door behind his bed, saying, “Don’t be afraid to step on the bed”:
“K. would not have hesitated to do it even without his invitation, he had actually set one foot plump in the middle of the feather bed, but when he looked out through the open door he drew his foot back again. ‘What’s this?’ he asked the painter. ‘What are you surprised at?’ returned the painter, surprised in his turn. ‘These are the Law Court offices. Didn’t you know that there were Law Court offices here? There are Law Court offices in almost every attic, why should this be an exception? My studio really belongs to the Law Court offices, but the Court has put it at my disposal.’ It was not so much the discovery of the Law Court offices that startled K.; he was much more startled at himself, at his complete ignorance of all things concerning the Court.” (205)
What a twist!
I guess it freaked me out because not only did this turn of events have a haunting, conspiratorial effect—that K. cannot go anywhere without being within the Court’s grasp—it also represented a lack of respect for reality, giving all of K.’s movements through the narrative a surreal, absurdist, practically Escher-ist (maybe Charlie Kaufman-ian?) bent. How could there be law offices in this tall, unwieldy apartment slum, in this forgotten part of town? What kind of architecture would support this unexpected addition just outside the painter’s high-floor studio, which K. had come upon by a different entrance altogether?
The story ends with the inevitable: K. is executed for his unnamed crime. He never learns how to appropriately pass through the Court system—and it’s just as well, because along the way he met several other accused men who had been facing trial for years and were, while still alive/free, virtual prisoners to the system, at the complete mercy of the lawyers and judges and officials of the Court.
The last passage, in which K. is led by his two executioners to a quarry to face his punishment, is striking. K. looks up and sees a human figure lean out of a distant window with arms outstretched:
“Who was it? A friend? A good man? Someone who sympathized? Someone who wanted to help? Was it one person only? Or was it mankind?… Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.
“But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.” (285-286)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)