Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

"From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn't do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me.  Some people inherit houses; others painting or highly insured violin bows.  Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name.  I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed." Page 401    
It's easy to say that Middlesex is all about sex, because it is.  It is also a family history and biography.  Calliope Stephanides, our narrator, is at the heart of all the stories and while not always the focal point, she--and the evolution of her transformation to 'he'--is the element that always drives events forward.  Even when Callie is not yet born; even when we already know the present state of his circumstances; everything in the novel drives toward one massive moment of discovery that a statistically few amount of the human population can truly wrap their heads around.  There is nothing like Middlesex.  
The book's presentation is something of a memoir, with Cal looking back on his life and the lives of his parents and grandparents.  In this first half there is some very detached narration as we learn of Cal's grandparents incestuous union, compounded, nearly excused, and to some degree completely forgotten amid their dangerous lives of being Greek in Turkey, World War One horrors and immigration to Detroit in the beginning portion of the twentieth century.  
The characters are rich and tangible and yet the distance that their story is related to the reader makes itself felt all throughout the book.  This distance or gap in emotional connection between the narration and the characters slowly closes as Callie's grandparents story turns into that of her parents and finally her own story.  It is not to say everything before Callie's time--nearly half of a five-hundred plus page novel--is un-engaging or even anything slightly offensive, rather it is decidedly not personal and very detached.  It is Callie's family history that is being related, yet Cal's current insecurity while telling his family's history yields a certain coldness to the story being told; not quite apathy but something greater than passing indifference.  
It is in this section of backstory to Cal's life that Eugenides scored many points for getting the reader to think.  The heart of Callie's story is in finding herself; who she finally settles on being, 'himself.'  The array of topics Callie encounters span a myriad of influences from gender identity, gender supremacy, how the individual views gender and how society views gender, race riots, revolution, what it means to have sex, the vague parameters of a relationship before and after things become physical, the evolution of Cadillac, and heartburn.  Some of these topics are hilarious.  In fact, it is a trait of the book that everything within it's covers is funny.  Not the laugh out loud humor that leaves tears on your cheek rather the half-smile that lights up your face and you try to suppress as to not have to explain to someone else what's so funny.  Other aspects of book are very serious, but never given so serious a consideration by the author as to be academic or stymie the narrative drive.    
There is so much social commentary about the time that Callie grows up and general food for though that I'm convinced that the book didn't have to end.  Eugenides is amazing in his ability to relate so many vast aspects of life to his lead character all with relevance, interest, and an astonishing amount of clout.
The change from Callie's family history to Callie's story itself happens right around puberty, or midway through the book.  Callie first love, anther girl referred to as "The Obscure Object" (Eugenides' naming conventions are infuriating; Chapter Elven is the only name given her bother, The Obscure Object is referred to as such to protect identity but Callie can call out the incest--generational incest--of her family without pause.  It took me a moment, but in the course of reading this behemoth I got over it) as well as her first 'conventional sexual' experience with The Obscure Object's brother are the harbingers to her change.  It is this change to Callie's story, told by Callie that things personal, uncomfortable, and disturbing.  This book will make you squirm around and set your imagination loose on things that you'd never before knew you could imagine.  It's wonderful and will keep you riveted, possibly revolted, but undeniably hooked and condemned to read to the end.  
Some sexual drama and physical injury later, Callie is presented with the information, or perhaps choice, that she is a he, or even more ambiguous; Calliope Stephanides is nothing definitive in terms of gender.  It is the narrators coming to terms with this information that begins an odyssey and journey of self-discovery that isn't truly fulfilled at the books end.  
There is much in this long story that is left out.  Substantial amounts of time in Callie's life are glossed over or wholly ignored.  Callie's mother--the woman who changed her diapers and bathed her for years and never once noticed anything strange down there--is a minor character, perhaps only because her father is such a powerful one.  But what we are given is so fresh an non-derivative that we can fill in the blanks our self and be plenty happy in doing so.  Eugenides' prose is something to talk about.  It's the same, presentation and style he offered in The Virgin Suicides.  Stark and cold, there is nothing poetic or flashy about his combination of words.  I can't imagine anyone ever calling him a 'stylist' and who cares?  He forgoes artful lyric poetry for daring sledgehammer-impact originality, and overwhelming 'dear God is this book really about a true hermaphrodite' unexplored narrative territory.  A more than fair trade in my opinion.  
Did I like the book?  I don't think the question relevant to a discussion of it's merits.  I can't imagine anyone saying Middlesex is their favorite book or that they can't wait to read it again.  Yet I'm glad I read it.  While I don't particularly care for Eugenides (there I said it) if his next offering hits this hard, I can't wait to read it.  

6 comments:

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

It's good that you got a lot out of this one, especially since it was such a commitment. I started reading this one for my book club but I got lost. There were just way too many side stories and not enough of a focus for this one to hold my attention. i have thought about giving it another try, since people seem to rave about it. But your thoughts on the book remind me a lot of the meandering style and why I couldn't stick with it in the first place.

Marion said...

Great commentary! I'm with Nicole on this one--I put it down about a hundred pages in, which I don't usually do. I think the lack of emotional connection is a problem for me. You've encouraged me to give it another try and push past "the wall."

Chad Hull said...

Nicole and Marion,

I have to say, I never encountered anything that made me want to put it down and while I understand everyone has their things that don't work for them, even when the story was not about Callie I was hooked.

But that's just me.

I do think it was a tough book to read. It's all kinds of long (which may only be an issue I have) and the subject matter is far from anyone's comfort zone. But I honestly feel like this is the kind of literature that can make us better people by being more aware to the lives of others around us and world we live and how we might treat them and it--respectively--in return.

Stephanie said...

To anyone who hasn't gotten past the highly unusual and somewhat difficult aspects of Middlesex: it definitely is worth giving it another try. Actually, reading your comment Chad, I think I'm going to read it again myself one of these days.
I also really agree that getting out of your comfort zone and being confronted to such things that you would probably never encounter otherwise makes you a better person, or at least helps open your mind.

B said...

Middlesex is my favourite book and I can't wait to read it again. There you go! (Well, one of my favourites, at least.)

I understand that the subject may make some people feel a little skirmish, but in my case, it only made me question my future career choices - I'm a med student, with a previous interest on genetic conditions and psychiatry. I started imagining myself dealing with gender issues cases such as Cal's.

But that's not even why I loved the book. I don't think it lacks emotion at all. While it is true that Cal's recount of the previous generations' lives feels detached and objective, Eugenides's prose and the story itself made me empathize with the characters. I'd read their thoughts and they were so plausible, so human in their nature, that I couldn't help but to care for each character. When Callie herself becomes the focus of the story, it consumes every other around it. I found her process of surviving through adolescence is not really different from anyone else's. With a couple of idiosyncrasies, that is.

I just love family sagas, as you can witness the development of a character as a whole, and coming of age stories, and this novel combines both.

Finally, I'm also irresistibly attracted equally to the bizarre and to the romantic in fiction. And Middlesex is nothing but.

Chad Hull said...

What up, B? (Sorry I had to)

I can tell you really liked Middlesex! If nothing else it certainly is unique; nothing else out there like it.

Thanks for saying 'hello.'