Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jeffrey Eugenides/MIDDLESEX

Cal Stephanides was born in 1960 in Detroit to an Anatolian Greek family and raised as a girl--Calliope. It wasn't until Cal was 14 that the truth (about Stephanides intermarriage, gene mutation, and recessive intersexuality--that is, hermaphroditism) came out. As an adult, Cal lives as a man, albeit an occasionally uncomfortable one. Using the excuse of tracking down the origins of the gene mutation, Cal tells the Stephanides family history from 1922 in the tiny village on Mt. Olympus in Turkey through 2002.

The story begins with Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides, the brother and sister orphans who have to evacuate Turkey when the war between Greeks and Turks reaches its head. The narrative, which is very absorbing, unfolds via the burning of Smyrna and the massacre of Greeks and Armenians, the immigration experience, the history of Detroit, the origins of the Nation of Islam, and the race riots of 1967, all en route to describing the physical manifestations and medical truths and uncertainties about hermaphroditism, and what it's like to grow up in a third and misunderstood gender. All of these topics were fascinating to read about, things I'd heard of before but never really understood the way I do now, and Eugenides's narrative is jam-packed with informative history. For the argument that fiction can be at least as valuable to read as nonfiction, I can't think of a better example. You'll come out of this book highly entertained and an accidentally smarter person. I learned the word "intersexual," about which I'm very glad.

The Homeric effort of the book is complemented by some nice little jokes for classics buffs out there (the Greek chiropractor friend drives over his wine-dark Buick every Sunday, for example), and the immigration experience retelling will certainly resonate with any fellow Mediterraneans out there. Despite some unevenness in the prose (vacillating between past and present, for example, bugged me, as did the probably intentional omissions of long stretches of time) and a number of loose ends simply left hanging, the book is a wonderful read. Jeffrey Eugenides casts of some lovely one-liners. For example, when Cal's mother gets engaged to a young Orthodox priest:
"Why did my mother do it? She could never explain. The reasons people marry the people they do are not always evident to those involved" (181).

At other moments, he knocks you to your knees. For example, when Callie, 14, looks up a chain of definitions in the New York Public Library dictionary after seeing her "condition" described on a medical report. The chain (which I've collapsed here) runs like this:
hypospadias [definition] See synonyms at EUNUCH
eunuch [definition] See synonyms at HERMAPHRODITE
hermaphrodite [definition] See synonyms at MONSTER (430)

Middlesex won the 2002 Pulitzer, and I gotta say, I think it deserved it.


JES said...

Middlesex came to me a few years ago, unbidden, a b'day gift from The Missus. Hands down one of the best books I've read in the last ten years. I find it very hard to describe it to others in a way which will make them think, Hmm, maybe I should read that... And yet everyone who's heard of it from me and then gone on to read it was blown away, too.

Good choice for The Book Book!

Kristin Dodge said...

Yay, yay, yay... this was my favorite for 2007. I'm glad you enjoyed it, as well, and I hope to read more of Eugenides.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I loved this book, and think it belongs in the same category as Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao (and also Zadie Smith's White Teeth)-- sprawling, exuberant, historically fascinating, culturally rich, risk-taking, sure-voiced, and on top of all that, generous. I like a book that doesn't emphasize its taut cleverness over the plight and depth of its characters, know what I mean? And yet there is still joy in the (yes, clever) language and structure. Overall, a wonderful, hard-to-categorize novel. I was never a fan of minimalist fiction. These more sprawling and ambitious books, which have made their marks over the last 10+ years, speak to me. I just wish Eugenides would get on with it and give us another book to read. He is rumored to be a slow-working perfectionist.

Cheryl said...

I have to say, I never understood the draw of this book. I found it just... uninteresting. Which surprised me, considering the material.

PurpleClover said...

AWESOME! (And I didn't know that word was retired either)

If I didn't have 99 other books to go I would add this

Maybe in 2015 I'll get around to it. ;) But it does sound good.

Alyssa said...

I also liked Middlesex a lot! One of those narrators whose voice really sticks with you--I can remember the tone still and it must be two years and many books since I read it.

moonrat said...

Interesting balance.

Andromeda, you should be a professional book reviewer; people would kill to have you say those pretty phrases in a a print venue.

Cheryl, can you put your finger on it? Kristin posted over on EdAss that she was disappointed with the way Cal's story itself was rushed, and I totally agree. I did feel that the telling was uneven. But on the other hand, I'm not sure what else there would have been to tell without adding another like 800 pages. So I'm undecided about whether that is a flaw or just me wanting more.

My grandparents are Italian immigrants who came over a decade after Cal's grandparents, and I did wonder when I was reading if some of the resonance was personal.

angelle said...

i really liked this too, though i didn't find it nearly as emotionally affecting as i'd hoped it would be.

Nancy said...

If I remember right I read - although I really think "snarfed" is a more appropriate word - 'The Virgin Suicides' (which left me equally befuddled and enchanted) after which I couldn't see any way of making it through the month without Middlesex.
Thanks, Moonie for the reminder about *where* it was that I read that scene with the bootleggers and the frozen lake....

These days I hang around abesbooks in hopes of finding just the right copy of the acclaimed but out of print 'My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro'. A collection of short stories that Jeffery Eugenides edited for Harper Collins, I think.

Venus Vaughn said...

I was moved by the book. I've known no less than four gender-challenged people in my life (that I'm aware of) and relished the opportunity to get a sneak into what it might have been like in their heads as children.

I thought the grandparents story was fascinating, especially the Nation of Islam twist.

For me, I wanted more of Cal's life as an adult. Those parts were the least fleshed out, and I think the most important for understanding how Cal's early experiences and struggles molded the person he is now.

J.C. Montgomery said...

Some of the pulitzer's I've decided to read have left me wondering, as sometimes I just didn't find the book that outstanding.

Nice to read your review and know at least on of them on my shelf right now is a keeper. Thanks!

Rebecca :) said...

I have this one on my 2009 to-read list as well. I'm always behind the trends so it will be right on time in my world. :)