Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

For some reason I was hesitant to pick up this book again. I’d read it at least twice before and remembered loving it but didn’t recall too many specifics; it had been a long time. Nothing about the Library of Congress list of themes particularly appealed to me: hermaphroditism, teenagers, Greek Americans, Detroit. One did lightly strike a chord–gender identity–because I’ve recently completed an experimental class on body image and sexualization of females. So I pulled Middlesex off the shelf.

I needed a good read, but it’s a pretty thick book at 529 pages and the last, much less daunting book I tried to read sat on my nightstand unfinished for a month. I didn’t expect to fly through Middlesex so quickly (one week) not just because of my Netflix-shortened attention span but also my eyes have been giving me so trouble, what with the floaters, dryness, ill-fitting contact lenses and increasing nearsightedness. I found myself sending my boyfriend home a half hour earlier than usual each night so that I could have time to read.

I’d forgotten what a brilliant writer Jeffrey Eugenides is, how gentle, how inventive, how honest, fearless and fun. Every character is interesting, well-rounded and human. The dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever read. The book is extremely well-researched but never bores with too much detail (I remember one beach read, I think Tom Clancy or one of those, that went on and on about ships without plot or characters in sight for pages; not my idea of vacation reading). Of course, the main subject of Middlesex, hermaphroditism, is much more intriguing to me than sea-going vessels.

Eugenides’ book reminds me of Tom Robbins’ book Jitterbug Perfume in several ways. The characters are various, mostly lovable, and detailed. The plot shifts forward and backward in time but holds there reader’s attention–I never got that disappointed, resigned, “Oh shoot, we have to leave so-and-so to start reading about somebody else,” feeling. Most important, both authors sort of insert themselves into the book as alter-egos of a main character. Eugenides, from his author photo and bio, obviously means to suggest that he is the main character, Cal, a faun-ish, Muskateer of a young man (formerly living as a girl).

According to Wikipedia Eugenides decided to write the book after reading the 1980 memoir Herculine Barbin and thought he could do better. I’m not sure why Eugenides made himself the model for his hermaphrodite character. He took a lot of his story from his own background. Eugenides grew up in Detroit and had Greek Americans from Asia Minor on one side of his family. Unlike his main character though, his mother is not Greek American but Anglo Irish, so the rare and recessive gene causing main character Calliope/Cal’s hermaphroditism is not part of his personal story.

One of my favorite things about the book is how Eugenides weaves Greek myth, the classic masks of comedy and tragedy and words I learned in AP English like spondaic and dactylic into the story. There’s such a richness to the way he takes advantage of something like the Minotaur story and aligns it to what is going on with his Greek grandparents, who are a brother and sister who fall in love and marry during the chaos of the Great Fire of Smyrna and the Greco-Turkish war in the early 1920s.

Main character Calliope is so aptly named–utterly Greek and also the muse of epic poetry, fitting for a long work like Middlesex. Most of the other characters have interesting, if not so symbolic, names: Grandfather Lefty, Dad Milton, Aunt Zo. I love that Calliope’s brother is identified only as Chapter Eleven, and we don’t find out why until the very end of the book.

The descriptions of Smyrna during the Great Fire are terrific and it’s incredible how the fires during the 1967 riots in Detroit balance Eugenides’ story. Smart, smart, smart. I’m so envious. It took Eugenides nine years to write the book. Apparently his biggest issue was the narrative voice. He nailed it. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and many critics wrote that it deserved the title of Great American Novel.

It’s hard to believe there was some negative criticism of what I consider a pretty perfect novel. Some critics felt that it was too disjointed and that the immigrant story took over that of the hermaphrodite, leaving that part of the story undeveloped. I liked the fact that the story was as much about the character’s relationship with his/her various family members as about his genetalia and gender identity.

Some felt the ending was rushed. I did not. I loved the ending–the book is good to the last word. I did not mind–in fact I liked–that Cal’s relationship with a woman he met in Berlin as an adult is not explored in more detail. My mind filled it in: these two smart, broad-minded and artistically inclined people would be happy together.

The louche San Francisco scenes are so different from the middle class conservative scenes of Callie’s childhood in Detroit, but just as engrossing. Cal’s job working in a water-filled tank for a peep show at the (fictional) San Francisco Sixty-Niners strip club in North Beach reminded me a lot of another book I adored, Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, published in 1989. In that book there is a character, Arturo, who is born with flippers instead of arms and works in a tank in a freak show.

Regarding Geek Love: interestingly, there is also an element of genetics and mutations that I can’t help but wonder if Eugenides was inspired by. The parents of a troop of “freaks” used chemicals to create their unique offspring. It’s not incest or recessive genetics, but an intentional creation of –to use the word Calliope finds in Webster’s Dictionary defining hermaphrodites–monsters.

Middlesex served to make me a lot more comfortable with differences in people’s bodies and orientations. There are so many versions of masculine, feminine and androgyny. Thanks to the LGBTQ movement, waxing and laser hair removal we are exposed (literally sometimes) to the infinite variety of normal. I find it very relaxing.

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