Friday, 21 May 2010

Book Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Read: April 2010 

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.

So begins the story of Calliope Stephanides. It’s an engaging beginning, but unusual too. In this first sentence Jeffrey Eugenides reveals not only the twist at the heart of Middlesex, but the time-frame against which it will be set. It’s a bold move but one that works spectacularly. By answering readers’ first question – what will happen? – he opens up all the questions that novels are most adept at tackling: the hows and whys of what happens, the complexities and uncertainties of a situation. And there are few situations more complex and uncertain than Calliope’s.

Now in his 40s, Cal has been living as an inter-sex man since he was a teenager, when his life as a girl suddenly ended. He feels the urge to tell his story for the first time.

After decades if neglect, I find myself thinking about departed great-aunts and –uncles, long lost grandfathers, unknown fifth cousins, or, in the case of an inbred family like mine, all those things in one. And so before it’s too late I want to get it down for good: this rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother’s own mid-western womb.

Middlesex is this story. Part history of a single mutated gene, it’s also about the social forces that shape the lives that carry it, the history that seeps through nooks and crannies into everything that takes place. It is reminiscent of many family saga novels: Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The first page reads like a reworking of the opening to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It’s all about the process of transformation and reinvention. Yet the inter-gender aspect is only one way in which this is expressed. Over the course of its epic eighty-year narrative the lives of three generations of a Greek family are shaped by transformation, both external and internal, imposed upon and wilfully embraced. It is part Geek tragedy in which the characters are chained to a fate decided long before their births, and part American dream in which anyone can make something of themselves through determination and hard work. It takes commonly considered polar opposites - nature versus nurture, male versus female, tradition versus science – and brings them into conflict, resulting in investigation of their middle grounds, a complex hermaphroditic mixture which embraces both sides at once.

The battlegrounds for these opposites are times of great flux: adolescence, immigration, turbulent social climates. Calliope’s story is actually one that many can relate to, especially the descriptions of trying to fit in as a teenager, fearful that something is desperately different about you, yet not really believing it to be true. Cal’s omniscient voice narrates compellingly as both young girl and grown man. It is convincing as both partly because it rejects the notion that there is great difference between the genders, that the greater disparities are between the ways that individuals write, think, and approach the world than genders per se. This is reflected in the process that leads Calliope to recreate herself as Cal which is not so much brought about by a discovery of her gender but a threat to her self and need to reinvent. And the transformation is not one of female to male, but about acknowledging that he has always been both and remains so.

Fearsomely researched and well executed, Middlesex is packed with titbits of knowledge and learning, from the municipal history of Detroit to the complex social and biological determinants of gender. Yet Eugenides controls the output of factual information carefully so that it doesn’t feel that the research is driving the plot. Above all, Middlesex strikes me as a fantastic example of an author writing about what he knows. Instead of imagining the entire novel from nothing, Middlesex grew from his trying to imagine himself as Calliope, faced with the same genetic mystery. The history, Diaspora and landscape of Middlesex stems from his own experience. And it shows. As Calliope notes, “The tiniest bit of truth made credible the greatest lies.”

Like the spokes at the heart of Detroit’s road network or the silkworms spinning their thread throughout the plot, Eugenides understands symbolism and uses it to create a world in which everything is significant. Everything is the pistol on Chekhov’s wall. Middlesex is one of those books one could write about forever, and reproduce huge passages in an effort to convey its scope and the quality of its prose. It’s funny too, and audacious and thrilling. But you’ll just have to read it for yourself. I’ll finish with this wondrous passage which seems to sum it all up.

Emotions, in my experience, aren't covered by single words. I don't believe in "sadness," "joy," or "regret." Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, "the happiness that attends disaster." Or: "the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy." I'd like to show how "intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members" connects with "the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age." I'd like to have a word for "the sadness inspired by failing restaurants" as well as for "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar." I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever.

Bloomsbury, September 2003, 544pp, 9780747561620

8 out of 10

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