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Friday, November 01, 2002

Book Reviews


Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, 529 pages, $27.

Midway through Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel, Middlesex, Cal Stephanides describes his parents’ failed attempt to read the so-called Great Books, which fosters his desire to write his own book, an autobiography, and thus enter the pantheon of the Western literary canon:

I bring up my parents’ failed assault on the Great Books for a reason. Throughout my formative years, the set remained on our library shelves, weighty and regal-looking with its gold spines. Even back then the Great Books were working on me, silently urging me to pursue the most futile human dream of all, the dream of writing a book worthy of joining their number, a one hundred and sixteenth Great Book with another long Greek name on the cover: Stephanides. That was when I was young and full of grand dreams. Now I’ve given up any hope of lasting fame or literary perfection. I don’t care if I write a great book anymore, but just one which, whatever its flaws, will leave a record of my impossible life.

An impossible life indeed. Cal Stephanides, née Calliope, second-generation Greek American, is born with a recessive mutation of the fifth chromosome. A hermaphrodite who, from the beginning of the novel, informs us that he “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….Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other….I’ve left my body in order to occupy others – and all this happened before I turned sixteen.” Cal’s intersexed body (“middle sex”) – and ultimately the refutation of strict sexual categorization – not only signifies his personal history (he is 41 years old when the narrative begins), however, but also becomes the embodiment of collective memory and experience. For in order to trace the origin of the narrator’s body, we embark on a trip following his “gene through time.” As Cal lets us know, he is “the final clause in a periodic sentence, and that sentence begins a long time ago, in another language, and you have to read it from the beginning to get to the end, which is my arrival.” This sentence brings us back to the 1920s, specifically, to the siblings, Desdemona and Lefty, living in Asia Minor, who will eventually become Cal’s grandparents. It relates their hubris as they fall in love during the Asia Minor catastrophe – the expulsion of the Greeks, the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, and the burning of Smyrna. Surrounded by flames and facing death, the two hopeless siblings recognize their incestuous attraction and desire, believing that it doesn’t matter anymore. Ironically, as the narrator suggests, that recognition of a possible new life, where nobody knows who they are, helps them escape the destruction and become refugees, eventually reaching America and settling in Detroit.

A truly impossible life of three generations of Greek Americans, Middlesex is an epic history full of secrets and transgressions, concerning the sexual and political activities and identities of Cal’s grandparents. Like the narrator’s life, those of his ancestors encompass physical, ethnic, cultural, and psychological displacements, as they oscillate between old and new identities, the old country (and its secrets) and the new Ithaca.

Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!…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 Midwestern womb. Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too.

Going back and forth in time, Cal recalls the life of his family through Prohibition, its struggles to survive the Depression, the founding of the Nation of Islam in Detroit and Desdemona’s employment there, the Second World War, the 1967 Detroit race riots, the marriage of Cal’s parents, Tessie and Milton (who are second cousins), Sixties culture, and on and on. At certain moments, I felt that particular aspects of the story – like the suggestion that Cal’s maternal grandfather founds the Nation of Islam or that Cal’s uncle, who is a priest, tries to extort money from Cal’s father – were quite unrealistic, even for fiction. Nevertheless, these extravagant details were entertaining, and did not affect my overall perception of the story. In the mayhem of these events, Calliope – the muse of epic poetry – is born. When her mother is pregnant, it is predicted by Desdemona’s silver-spoon test that the child will be a boy, but upon the girl baby’s birth, her father’s scientific convictions and expectations of female offspring appear to be fulfilled. However, as we already know, they are both right and wrong; the baby-guessing in the family reflects Cal’s middle sex. At the very moment of his birth, he is designated female and it is only later that he consciously changes his sexual designation to male. As “middle sex,” he is between male and female, just as the narrative takes us between the old and new worlds, science and superstition, biology and culture, tragedy and comedy, fate and self-determination. Eugenides’s novel explores the in-between of all of these concepts and notions, deconstructing any predetermined binary oppositions and categorizations. As Cal explains:

I never felt out of place being a girl. I still don’t feel entirely at home among men. Desire made me cross over to the other side, desire and the facticity of my body. In the twentieth century, genetics brought the ancient Greek notion of fate into our very cells. This new century we’ve just begun has found something different. Contrary to all expectation, the code underlying our being is woefully inadequate. Instead of the expected 200,000 genes, we have only 30,000. Not many more than a mouse. And so a strange new possibility is arising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns you into a mind.

In the end, Cal decides to escape from the tyranny of secrecy and embrace his male identity, fleeing the doctor who wants to correct her anatomical ambiguity surgically and at the same time fix her sex and gender as female based on given social norms. What is important to mention here is that Cal does not leave the clinic because the doctor has selected the wrong permanent gender assignment, but rather because of the fact of the assignment itself. In other words, Cal rejects any categorization of gender and the imposition of sex on his body. This does not mean that he is free to enjoy his desires unregulated by any, especially medical, discourse. As both Calliope’s love story with the “Obscure Object of Desire” (the former’s code-named first love) and Cal’s later employment in a San Francisco “freak show” prove, Cal’s desire and sexuality are controlled by a regulatory discourse no matter how hidden. In other words, although the affair with the female Obscure Object of Desire can be seen as transgressive, at the same time Cal (and I would add the Obscure Object of Desire as well) is fully aware of Calliope’s usurpation of the male role that the affair embodies. The description of their sex act but also their reaction to the sudden appearance of the Object’s brother are indicative. To use Judith Butler’s words in her discussion of another famous hermaphrodite:

S/he knows that her position in that exchange is transgressive, that she is a “usurper” of a masculine prerogative, as s/he puts it, and that s/he contests that privilege even as s/he replicates it. The language of usurpation suggests a participation in the very categories from which s/he feels inevitably distanced, suggesting also the denaturalized and fluid possibilities of such categories once they are no longer linked causally or expressively to the presumed fixity of sex. Herculine’s anatomy does not fall outside the categories of sex, but confuses and redistributes the constitutive elements of those categories; indeed, the free play of attributes has the effect of exposing the illusory character of sex as an abiding substantive substrate to which these various attributes are presumed to adhere.

Cal’s own act destabilizes and blurs any clear categorization of sex.

Embarking on a journey both psychological and physical, Cal explores the possibilities of a new life and identity, but always within the confines of his own secret. To a certain degree, Cal’s escape from the doctor’s knife and his journey to the promised land, San Francisco, and later Berlin become reflections of his grandparents escape from Asia Minor. The arrival to a new place without necessarily changing his life and making it free of secrets still offers the possibility of a new beginning. The end of the novel finds Cal in a relationship with a female Japanese American photographer in another foreign city, Berlin. The choice of this particular city, with its history of division and its current unification, is a particularly apt setting for the acceptance of his own hermaphroditism.

Although Eugenides’s book by no means offers a sociological perspective on the life of three generations of a Greek American family, as some reviewers have claimed, it nevertheless reflects upon (sometimes tragically, sometimes humorously) “our most recent past, the time we like to call history.” Cal Stephanides becomes the living embodiment of his family’s history, bearing witness like Tiresias, who, as T. S. Eliot reminds us in his notes to The Waste Land, unites all characters, “so all women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias.” To all you Eliot scholars out there, you might wish to pursue the poet’s own reference to a Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant who, like Tiresias, melts into all other characters. Cal’s story of his family is one of physical and psychological dislocation and displacement, an ongoing experience of living with the painful memories of the past as well as the realities of the present. It is about surviving a painful past and its secrets, and its haunting effect on the present, and participating in the history and ongoing challenges of a new country. The Stephanides family carries the baggage of its past to a new place. We become witnesses to the family’s function and dysfunction, and to the way that both individual and collective experience ultimately define the complexity of history. Like many immigrant families, Cal’s family operates in the middle of the old and new experience. On one hand, the family tries to preserve or hang on to the memories and traditions of the past (or is unable to escape its secrets), while, on the other hand, it faces the reality and challenges of the present. The family’s life in America constitutes a new beginning, like its move to their new suburban home in Grosse Pointe. For Cal:

The architecture of Middlesex was an attempt to rediscover pure origins. At the time, I didn’t know about all that. But as I pushed through the door into the skylit guest house I was aware of the disparities. The boxlike room, stripped of all embellishment or parlor fussiness, a room that wished to be timeless or ahistorical, and there, in the middle of it, my deeply historical, timeworn grandmother. Everything about Middlesex spoke of forgetting and everything about Desdemona made plain the inescapability of remembering.

And they are not bystanders or passive witnesses to history. They often actively and fully participate in the changes and often traumatic events that have marked twentieth-century America. In the end, it does not really matter how exaggerated readers find the family’s involvement in this history. Let us not forget, to paraphrase an old Greek saying: turn over any stone and you’ll find a Greek! What is important, I think, about the life that the narrator reconstructs is that this is not a hagiography or another happy and naive version of Greek American life such as the one we have recently seen in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It is rather a more honest, sometimes cruel and tragic, sometimes surreal and humorous, representation of a family.

In the end, Eugenides’s novel is a remarkable achievement, not only because it masterfully interweaves history and fiction, tragedy and comedy, the bizarre and the ordinary, in its account of three generations of a Greek American family but mostly because of the emotional and psychological depth of its characters. I do not know if Cal Stephanides has succeeded in giving us a story of lasting significance or if s/he is destined to become the world’s most famous hermaphrodite, but I do believe that s/he will be remembered as a very talented and idiosyncratic storyteller who deserves to have the name of the muse.

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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