No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, August 03, 2007

#40: Middlesex -- Jeffrey Eugenides

A book I wish I'd written, though I don't think I would have been able to write it. The intimate knowledge of the Greek-American community, the harsh facts of biology ... the voice.

Middlesex is the story of Cal (née Calliope) Stephanides:
Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I've been ridiculed by classmates, guinea-pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists, and researched by the March of Dimes. A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me too.) An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into myth; I've left my body in order to occupy others -- and all this happened before I turned sixteen.

On one level it's the epic story of three generations of a Greek-American family, from the burning of Smyrna through the Depression and World War II to the mid-seventies (with 'present-day' interludes in which Cal, older and wiser, looks back on the whole story from the vantage point of a diplomatic posting in Berlin).

On another it's a Greek tragedy, full of secrets, consciously and unconsciously dramatic gestures, psychology and mythology: in the late summer of 1923, minotaurs haunted my family. There are Greek plays touched by modern tragedy; nymphs and naiads; monsters found, not in the woods or the psyche, but in Webster's American Dictionary.

On yet another it's a novel about biology and destiny, and whether one is the other. Biology gives you a brain: life turns it into a mind.

And on another it's a (not necessary The) Great American Novel, about the immigrant experience, about coming to America and creating a hybrid life of both Greek and American elements. Cal's father buys a new Cadillac every year, and so we learn about the history of the Cadillac; Cal's uncle is an Orthodox Priest, and so we hear the Mass. The words meant nothing, almost nothing, to me, [but] I felt their weight, the deep groove they made in the air of time. The family settle in Detroit, so there's Prohibition (rum-running across the frozen lake), race riots, industrial decline. Cal's older brother, shaken to his core by the lottery of the Draft, drops out and starts taking acid. Cal's grandmother takes to her bed after her husband's death and stays there for decades. And back in the old country there's the invasion of Cyprus (which divides the family, until tragedy brings them together once more).

Cal is well aware of the shifting balance between Greek and American: at one point near the end of the novel, A real Greek might end on this tragic note. But an American is inclined to stay upbeat.

There's a sense of timelessness to the narrative: secrets that are revealed by their keepers at the end of the book are recounted in their historical place, at the beginning; Chapter Eleven, Cal's brother, sports this nickname throughout though he only earns it after the meat of the story is over.

I love the sensory detail, the precision -- the smell of geraniums that's "somewhere between licorice and aluminium" -- and the richness of the prose; I love Cal's wry humour and the occasional flashes of self-awareness in the narrative: a moment of cheap symbolism, and then I have to bow to the strict rules of realism. But this is magical realism, a realism that allows Cal to inhabit a dying man's last dream -- [He] no longer had any brainwaves, so it was understandable why, hovering in the Cadillac, he might have forgotten that the Zebra Room had burned down long ago -- and to witness the conception of a parent, the seduction of another.

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to write a review without using a personal pronoun to refer to the protagonist?

Because Cal, née Calliope, has more than a little in common with Tiresias, as is clear from the very first sentence:
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. Specialised readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study, "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites" ...

Cal's story is of someone becoming themself -- not only discovering themself as all children do, but defining herself, himself, as an individual. It's not a story that starts with Cal's second birth, or even her first (which, as a matter of fact, occurs nearly two-thirds of the way through the book), but in a small Turkish village in 1922. Or possibly long before, with the Minotaur myth. Or possibly, yes, in Petoskey, when Cal (then Calliope, Callie for short: a tall, skinny girl with hair she can hide behind) falls in love with a redheaded girl who's a kind of mother to that second birth.

Not an introspective narrative, either, but one packed with adventure and events: escape from burning Smyrna, from cold New York, to -- and from -- a kind of circus, to a kind of closure in which Cal, male at last, finds himself fitting neatly into the rituals of the old country: guarding the door of a dead man's home during his funeral, so that the spirit might not creep within. It was always a man who did this, and now I qualified.

It's still too fresh in my mind for me to be objective about possible flaws. Are all of the conflicts and dramatic sequences necessary? Does the novel end in the right place? I'd have liked more, but that would be a different story -- not about becoming, but about being.

1 comment:

  1. valoriez8:09 am

    Thanks for writing this literate, thoughtful review of Middlesex. Now instead of writing my own review, I'll simply link to yours!