Monday, July 30, 2007

Middlesex (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."

Middlesex on Amazon

The narrator of this oh-so-cutely titled, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel inhabits the middle ground between male and female. Raised by unknowing parents as a girl, Calliope Stephanides, now forty-one-year-old Cal Stephanides, narrates her girlhood and the history of the two generations before her, whose inbreeding resulted in her condition. "Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!" Cal writes in the opening chapter. "Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family." Evoking epic tradition, Eugenides tells a sweeping tale of a Greek family who come to rest in Michigan, but while anchored in a very old tradition he has an original and arresting take on gender.

In this epic, an individual comes to terms with a destiny written by forces greater than herself. But those forces are no longer supernatural or divine, or even societal; they're genetic.

While the romance and intrigue of Callie's ancestors are absorbing and intrinsic to the impact of the story, the real fireworks start when Calliope enters the fictional world. She shatters the boundaries that we unconsciously expect in characters; she can't be categorized or contextualized, despite the copious amount of backstory. No wonder her favorite place at school is a basement bathroom -- not only, as the narrator says, because on its graffitied walls "people wrote down what they couldn't say" but because it's a marginal space. Outside of boundaries, outside time.

At first I thought Eugenides' writing might be too precious (in the "Sing, O Muse" sentences quoted above, for example). But after the grandiosity of the opening chapter the prose style becomes less intrusive, though never lacking in a somewhat mannered musicality. In short it's along the lines of what you'd expect from an Oprah selection, but slightly more cerebral (and palatable). I wouldn't read this book for sheer joy in how it's written; more, to devour the food for thought contained in every action of Calliope's, every machination that brings about her birth and her discovery of herself.

Not only this, but Callie is a believable adolescent, tortured by all the usual angst of a coming-of-age novel, and burdened with more than sufficient material for an existential crisis. The understanding of humanity contained within this novel is deep -- the breadth of sexuality and love and fear that individuals experience. From the 1920s' New Woman and unabashed lesbian Sourmelina to the 1990s' Zora, an academically-minded exotic dancer with Androgen Insensitivity and deep distrust of men, characters -- particularly women -- seem to form almost a catalog of the varieties of sex and gender in the twentieth century. The machinery of the narrative isn't always invisible, and sometimes it's even a bit creaky, but Cal often draws back to look at that very machinery and give us meta-commentary on his storytelling. Everything fits together. Everything has brought Cal to where he is now. Middlesex weaves a story at once organic and self-conscious, circular and linear, masculine and feminine.

In Summary: Highly recommended; a fascinating, complex exploration of gender among other questions.


Alexander P. Ellis said...

Great review. And yet somehow, you fail to notice the author's last name might as well be the Ancient Greek hero form of "eugenics."

Kristen said...

Silly me. I always miss the really relevant points... :)