Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) Picador (2003) 529 pp
I recently posted a review on Eugenides’s first book, The Virgin Suicides, and in it I mentioned that I didn’t like his Pulitzer-winning Middlesex. I have to admit, when it won the Pulitzer I was excited to read it. The crowd of people who loved it looked inviting and genuinely excited. But after reading it, I was disappointed and now have to cross to the other, lonely side of the street. Perhaps someone will help me see where I’ve missed the crux of the book, and then I’ll gladly jog across the street again.
The story is based on a fascinating premise:
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.
Here we meet Cal, formerly Calliope or Callie, Stephanides, who discovers that being a teenage girl is incredibly difficult — and then discovers he’s not really a girl at all. But the story doesn’t get there for quite a while. Like many good stories about identity, we must first go back to the forebears, Cal’s grandparents who, like Saleem Sinai’s in Midnight’s Children, seem to be on the fringe of many major historical events that combine to create the world in which Cal grows up. However, in this book, this trek through history, in the book to trace the path of the gene that ultimately makes Calliope Cal, while interesting in and of itself, felt disconnected from Cal’s story.
When I told my life story to Dr. Luce, the place where he invariably got interested was when I came to Clementine Stark. Luce didn’t care about criminally smitten grandparents or silkworm boxes or serenading clarinets. To a certain extent, I understand. I even agree.
I agree too. This quote comes from page 263 and is really where, to me, the story finally picked up and got into the subject the book promised — Cal’s life as a hermaphrodite, his coming to terms with his past and his identity, his unique perspective on the world coming from both a man and a woman.
While the first 263 pages were interesting and had some important developing points, I wish it were distilled, perhaps a few times over. Eugenides is a great, fluid writer — very witty. But he can get really wordy, and I didn’t see the need here. I admit that one of my favorite writers is the laconic Cormac McCarthy; I am often annoyed by what seems to me undue verbosity. This was a case where many elements that make up the length seemed superfluous and distracting. I know, I sound like — and probably am like — the ignorant Emperor telling Mozart he uses too many notes, cut out a few and it would be perfect. But strangely I felt like Eugenides told so much about his characters and yet they still felt underdeveloped. Often times the family history felt like one event after another without much time devoted to feeling what the character felt. We were simply told what the character felt.
In the end, though the story is compelling and undoubtedly interesting, I didn’t feel like it delivered. I see a lot of connections Eugenides makes about identity, but they didn’t seem fully developed. In fact, there were many symbols and motifs throughout the book that were very clever, and I expected a lot from them. But ultimately they seemed to be only that: clever; or rather, a device used to show cleverness and not to really further the plot or elaborate on a theme.
And that reminds me of another disclosure I must make. It’s an awful thing to go into a book expecting it to be something, but that’s what I did here. Over the last decade in literary criticism, gender/identity studies have increasingly looked at androgyny (which is close to, but not the same as hermaphroditism) and what it can say about perspective and gender. When a book called Middlesex won the Pulitzer, I unfortunately expected a nuanced, philosophical look at gender and America and identity. I didn’t feel like this was it.
Unfortunately, those expectations (my own fault) made me miss out on some of the other subtle aspects of the novel that shine through the history: the Smyrna uprising, immigration, Henry Ford’s ironic morality screening for his employees and the rise of Detroit, American optimism after World War II, the race riots in the 1960s and the decline of Detroit, the impressive connection between classicism and Cal’s Greek heritage.
Please don’t judge me too harshly for what is probably my own failure to comprehend. In fact, please leave comments that help me see what I’m missing. See, I still have faith that the book is great, that all those people on that side of the road are correct.
And, after all, I did enjoy this book. Though I treated it harshly above, I enjoyed the Forrest Gump-like trek through American history. There are really some fascinating episodes in this book that made me realize how ignorant I am or how much I’ve lacked the imagination to see what these events meant to people living at the time. Eugenides does an excellent job bringing these episodes to life. Sometimes, though, they felt like a series of episodes. Sometimes I felt like he should have written an essay on American history rather than this novel.
I also enjoyed Eugenides’s sly, clever writing. I know that above I said that some things seemed to be there just to showcase the author’s wit, but some of that is forgiveable because he is really witty. I guess the best way to put this is that in Middlesex (but not The Virgin Suicides) Eugenides’s writing reminded me of Jim Carrey’s acting: at moments brilliant, hysterical, and spot on; but at other moments just too much, with a need to be toned down, better controlled.