Eugenides, Jeffrey. (2002). Middlesex. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
This Pulitzer Prize winner is actually two novels in one, which accounts for its 530 pages. Either story might have made a good novel. Concatenating them suggests, but does not quite achieve, a satisfying multi-generational epic.
In the first story, we meet a Greek peasant family in Eastern Turkey around 1920. A young couple, Lefty and Desi, migrate west to Smyrna (modern Izmir) on the Mediterranean, where they live until the Turks recapture the town and burn everything. The couple escapes to America, where they end up in Detroit and start a family. Lefty makes a living as a rum runner, driving over the ice to and from Canada. It’s a reasonably entertaining family saga with historical detail.
The second story is about the couple’s second child, Calliope, who is born with the anatomy of a female but with XY male chromosomes. That doesn’t matter much until female puberty fails to kick in at age 13 and everyone is confused. Finally, 435 pages into the novel, a doctor makes a diagnosis: Callie is a hermaphrodite. The medical details are fully described but then developmental confusion becomes crisis: what should be done? The doctor recommends Callie should take hormone therapy and continue as the female she has always been, but she decides she feels like a male inside, so she runs away, cuts her hair, and becomes Cal. Eventually, Cal returns to the family home on Middlesex avenue (get it?) and all is well.
The transgender story is intrinsically interesting, Eugenides’ compressed, almost perfunctory account of it is disappointing. You would think such a dramatic mental change would be played out in detail. Fewer than 100 pages are dedicated to the transition, when it could have been a whole novel in itself. The transgender story is almost an afterthought to the tepid immigrant story.
The whole book is presented as Callie/Cal’s memoir, in first person, except it isn’t quite that because the narration begins with Callie’s grandparents falling in love, two generations before her birth. So it is an omniscient narrator pretending to be a first-person memoirist, an interesting innovation, since up until now, there has been no such thing as first-person omniscient.
Furthermore, this narrator is self-referential: Of the grandparents’ ordeals, the heretofore third-person narrator interjects, “Of course, a narrator in my position (prefetal at the time) can’t be entirely sure about any of this.”
At other places in the book the narrator unexpectedly becomes third-person past, third-person present, third-person close, second-person, and traditional first-person limited. The changes among these voices is expert and almost seamless. There are some mind-boggling exercises in narratology in this novel that any writing instructor would circle in red pencil. Yet Eugenides weaves them excitingly.
Another interesting writing technique is deft use of symbols. Callie’s grandmother raises silkworms in Turkey, and detailed description is offered of the worm and its cocoon, a parallel perhaps to Callie’s exceptionally long “crocus” as she calls it, which is usually concealed within her labia. The allusions are subtle, not exactly Ahab’s whale. They sometimes seem like the writer showing off rather than a literary device that adds much value.
Eugenides uses other worthwhile literary techniques, including humor that ranges from the subtle and wry to farce and pun. There is some excellent phenomenological description and some convincing streams of consciousness. There is a touch of magical realism toward the end. So while the book comes up short of expectations for story, it compensates by being written in an interesting way.