Cal Stephanides, the amiable narrator of MIDDLESEX, Jeffrey Eugenides' big, beguiling treat of a second novel, is born with externally deceptive genitalia. He's raised as a girl until a heart-wrenching psychological identity shift at the hormone-drenched age of 15. This is potentially trendy talk-show-topic material, but rather than setting his sights on the torment of gender confusion, Eugenides uses Cal's double-visioned life experience as an opportunity to display a generous, good-humored empathy toward all of his novel's characters, male and female. By dint of his wide-angled perspective, Cal serves readers not as a lens on the hermaphroditic, but as a prism of the humane.
Eugenides grounds Cal's life story in the context of the sprawling Stephanides family history, a Greek-American immigrant saga that brings Cal's paternal grandparents to urban Detroit in the wake of the burning of Smyrna by the Turks in 1922 and leads all the way to the present day. Readers meet four generations of Cal's consistently funny family; there are entrepreneurs, charlatans, housewives, hippies, homosexuals, and religious leaders, all linked by matrimony and genetics and love. There are births, courtships, weddings, scandals, and secrets.
While MIDDLESEX is marked as very much a 2002-model novel by its main character's peculiar duality and some highly self-conscious storytelling techniques (a Citizen Kane style summary of the whole book in its opening passage, commentaries made directly to the reader, an audacious --- but successful --- blend of first-person and omniscient narration), many of its charms are decidedly old-fashioned. MIDDLESEX is a cleverly post-modernized successor to the likes of Howard Fast's THE IMMIGRANTS series, engrossing multi-generational bestsellers that were popular in the Nixon era, when Cal Stephanides and Jeffrey Eugenides were growing up.
Even the most eccentric subplots of MIDDLESEX (a Muslim temple scam, a tension-fraught car chase, the invention of hot dogs that flex like biceps) are imbued with a tender, familial warmth that leads the reader to accept them with relative ease. Likewise, given the slightest chance, Cal, nee Callie, will win the affection and acceptance of readers who might instinctively shy away from a novel centered on such a character.
Eugenides manages to tuck a strange personal tale into the capaciousness of a traditional commercial epic, much as Cal's pseudo-penis is hidden away in his labial folds.
Unlike Gore Vidal's brilliantly abrasive gender-bending in his notorious MYRA BRECKINRIDGE and MYRON, or Chris Bohjalian's issue-oriented melodrama in the recent TRANS-SISTER RADIO, Eugenides opts for a sweetly comic --- and ultimately more persuasive --- approach to confounding sexual identities. Bypassing in-your-face gender politics, Eugenides focuses on undeniable in-your-bloodline realities, the "roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time."
"Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!" joshes Cal, in mock Homeric style, as he launches into his epic family narrative, "…Sing how it passed through nine generations…how it blew like a seed across the sea to America…until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother's own midwestern womb." Eugenides slyly reminds us that, however unique each of us may be, we are also entangled in genetic history's grand warp and weft.
While genetic history provides MIDDLESEX its subtext, American history is its backdrop. Eugenides aligns moments in the Stephanides' lives with keystone episodes in national development. When Grandfather Lefty arrives in Detroit he is briefly employed at the Ford Motor Company, where, thanks to impeccable research and virtuosic descriptive passages, Eugenides deftly etches the dehumanizing aspect of assembly line work. He also riffs on its long-term societal effects, wittily applying a bit of Darwinian terminology to keep his big themes bubbling beneath the surface:
"At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has passed down: we've all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of 100 kinds."
The Detroit race riots of 1967, white flight to the suburbs, the social divisiveness of the Nixon era, and the so-called sexual revolution all feed into Eugenides' impressively casual plotting, making MIDDLESEX believable despite occasional moments of too-fantastic absurdity (Cal's older brother is inexplicably named Chapter 11, a priest concocts a kidnapping scheme, Cal joins a burlesque show). One is able to soar with Eugenides' wilder flights of imagination, because he builds such a concrete world of perfect period detail: young Callie's 1972 medicine cabinet is stocked with "pink Daisy razors…a spray can of Psssssst instant shampoo…a tube of Dr. Pepper Lipsmacker…my Crazy Curl hair iron…and a shaker of Love's Baby Soft body powder."
There are moments as well when Eugenides captures the pulse of an era in his dialogue. Consider Chapter 11's explanation of his refusal to use deodorant during his hippie phase:
"I'm a human…This is what humans smell like."
He also turns down a family vacation to their ancestral hometown in Greece arguing that "Tourism is just another form of colonialism."
The most awkward spot in MIDDLESEX comes at the most awkward period of young Callie's life. At age 15 she begins to question her gender and sexuality after developing a crush on a female friend whose brother simultaneously lusts for Callie. As Jeffrey Eugenides proved in his debut novel, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, he has a keen sense for the mysterious emotions of teenage attraction, the sometimes inseparable blend of the sexual and the romantic. Once again, here, he limns his characters' feelings with great precision. But because the main character is Callie --- and because we have long understood exactly what makes her feelings particularly exquisite --- the book's pace flags a bit as we await her discovery of what we already know.
After this brief lull, though, MIDDLESEX zooms through its immensely satisfying final 130 pages. When Callie is brought to New York to discuss her mixed gender with professional specialists, Eugenides --- once again thanks to clearly thorough research --- deftly navigates a broad, fascinating, but potentially confusing field of medicine (For a more in-depth but also marvelously readable study of intersexed children, see John Colapinto's nonfiction AS NATURE MADE HIM: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl.) Eugenides also uses his closing chapters to pull the characters of Tessie and Milton, Cal's parents, out from the broad panorama of family tapestry, providing readers with insightful close-up looks at their confusion and their unquestioning love of their child. To top it all off, right when you'd be perfectly happy to have MIDDLESEX wax to a humorously philosophical close, Eugenides delivers a slam-bang cinematic set-piece that shocks and soothes all at once.
Old-fashioned and new-fangled, loaded with smarts but not afraid of sentiment, MIDDLESEX is a joy to read.
Reviewed by Jim Gladstone on September 16, 2002
- Publication Date: September 16, 2002
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 529 pages
- Publisher: Picador
- ISBN-10: 0312422156
- ISBN-13: 9780312422158