The opening line of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is “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.” This intriguing conundrum is explained promptly as we are then informed of the narrator’s ancient genetic mutation, in conjunction with a brief smattering of the contradictions in the speaker’s life that led up to and immediately followed this astounding discovery. And that’s just on the first pages of this novel. But I can assure you that the remaining 500+ pages are no less engaging.
While an investigation into just this dramatic life-changing event could easily be an excellent subject for a novel, Eugenides decided to also give us the history of how this mutation came about, by including the family history of the main character, starting with her/his grandparents and their escape from Greece. Together we learn the genealogy of Calliope Helen Stephanides and what caused her to eventually become Cal. While this sounds somewhat cut and dry, Eugenides’ style is such that every piece of the puzzle is artistically drawn and gently fitted together. But there isn’t much mystery here, since we know from the outset where we are being led to. It is how Eugenides leads us there that make this book so amazing.
Although broken down into four ‘books’ Eugenides doesn’t stick completely to a chronological account here. From the onset, we get the feeling that much of this is a story told in flashbacks, since we aren’t actually transported back to prior to January 1960. It seems more like we are watching a movie with the director’s while listening to commentary. This is done by carefully peppering the historical sections with small references to Calliope/Cal. The trials and tribulations of these ancestors therefore take on a rosy wash to them, and despite the harshness of some of these events, we feel they are all softened by the wisdom of hindsight. There’s also a fine balance of first person and third person narration here that allows the events prior to 1960 to include conversations of those who were there, along with observances by Calliope/Cal regarding how these events would affect the more recent past and present.
While this mixture may sound like it could be confusing, there wasn’t even one instance where the reader will feel unsure or confused. This is due to very subtle use of language alterations which carefully colour each of the eras included in the story, using older or more modern language as the settings required. And yet, there was still an overall stylistically distinctive voice throughout the novel that kept it from feeling inconsistent or fake. If you think about it, this makes a great deal of sense. For instance, if you recount a story your grandparent told you about their childhood, you wouldn’t want to use the same modern vocabulary that you’d use when telling someone about what happened last week. But not all writers can walk that thin line, and this is the type of masterful writing that won Eugenides a Pulitzer Prize for this book in 2003.
It is important to note that this book doesn’t answer all the questions it poses. For instance, Calliope/Cal has an older brother who is called Chapter Eleven. Now, the phrase ‘chapter eleven’ is something Americans will immediately identify as filing for bankruptcy. We never learn why this brother is called that, or if that’s even his real name. We also don’t get heavily detailed information about some of the characters. For instance, while Calliope/Cal paternal grandparents come across very vividly, the maternal ones are less detailed. This also seems to pass on to Calliope/Cal’s father being a much larger personality than Calliope/Cal’s mother. Mind you, we don’t always want every single character to get equal billing, so this shouldn’t be considered a bad thing. And since Calliope/Cal is the central character, it is she/he that we should concentrate on.
And that, basically, is what we get in spades – Calliope/Cal and how she/he becomes, develops, changes, and deals with her/his condition. Despite all the historical parts included, we always feel Calliope/Cal presence in the narrative, and we often find ourselves looking at those events through Calliope/Cal’s eyes. This means that while the obvious, even clichéd ways that authors develop their characters isn’t evident in this book, we certainly get a far more subtle, almost subliminal indication of Calliope/Cal and how she/he gets from point A to point B. But what struck me as most impressive is how Eugenides instills Calliope/Cal’s sexual dichotomy through this narrative. Since the book tells us early on that Cal is in his 40s when he accounts these events, we know that he has been living the majority of his life as a man. And yet, there is something very specifically feminine in almost all of what Cal is, says and does. It is as if Eugenides is telling us that despite biology and Cal’s own realization that he really was and is a boy, the effect of an initial 16 years as a girl can never totally wear off. Portraying this, without saying it straight out, is nothing short of genius.
This is book a book to be savoured. Mind you, it isn’t the easiest read out there, so keep it for a time when you can concentrate on it. If you do, it will be well worth the effort. The subtle use of language and style is exceptional and the subject matter of the book is uniquely absorbing. I can’t recommend this highly enough and would give it a full five stars out of five (though it deserves more).
|Buy book online