Friday, September 2, 2011

Middlesex ~ Jeffrey Eugenides

"Aw that's sweet OH WAIT THAT'S YOUR BROTHER."

I suppose that Jeffrey Eugenides deserves a trophy or a cookie or something (or maybe he'll just settle for a Pulitzer) for how good a job he did eliciting the above response from me.  Doing such an impressive job of balancing familiar and potently romantic moments with the no-no of incest is kind of impressive in how well he manages to detach himself from these two conflicting elements, but it mostly just made me queasy.  Though perhaps this isn't the best start to a book review.

Back to the basics.  Here's a rough summary of the novel which I'd heard praised a thousand times before picking it up and realizing I knew zilch about it: the novel is narrated by Cal, born Callie, a hermaphrodite with an *ahem* interesting family history (which essentially makes him his own second cousin and robs him at birth of the penis that his DNA says he should have).  The novel is written in the form of an autobiography going back years before Cal's birth and is set mostly in Detroit, though also has bits in Turkey and Germany.  In addition to the obvious issues of sex and gender, the novel also addresses race and its various forms.

It's taken several days for me to even attempt to write this review, largely because I don't know what I think.  I had a slightly shameful fascination with the fact that this was about a hermaphrodite, which was exacerbated by my wondering if Eugenides was simply exploiting the strangeness of a rare genetic trait that he read about somewhere.  Combine that with the ickiness of the incest and the novel's apparent claim that lesbians should have no problem with incest because they're sexual freaks too, and I have a hell of a problem on my hands.

Because I couldn't put this book down.  Even though the writing bothered me - the casual narrative form of a memoir in the context of a novel just seems lazy to me - I had to keep reading.  Even though I didn't find Detroit that compelling of a backdrop, I had to keep reading.  Even though it made me question some of my own fascinations and my own interest in spectacle, I had to keep reading.  Even though there was a character named Chapter Eleven and no reason was given for this (Wikipedia explains it but I wish the book did too)... you get the point.

I enjoyed Middlesex, I did.  I didn't love its characters though, or the motivations ascribed to them.  The mothers all turn into stereotypes: Desdemona, a sexual deviant in her youth, becomes a complaining, self-pitying old woman; Tessie, who once pleasured in a man playing the clarinet against her flesh, becomes a shell of woman, existing only for her family and the activities that the community says should interest her; and Zoe, whose character was never explored, becomes a nag who drives her husband away.  Callie, fortunately, manages to avoid this fate by becoming a man and therefore not a mother, but wait - why did Callie decide to become Cal?  Calliope seemed like a pretty well-adjusted and even stereotypical girl, excited for bras and menstruation, when she suddenly finds out that genetically (and according to American notions of sex) she is "supposed" to be a he, and decides to make the change.  The only apparent motivation for this decision is that Calliope liked girls.  What?!  How is that sufficient motivation?  Cal spends 500 pages exploring his family's history in the context of his own rebirth as a man, and never explains this key point.  Maybe I missed something.  I hope I did.

I could go on about my ambivalence towards Middlesex all night, but I won't.  I won't be trading this book in, but I don't see myself rereading it either, at least not for quite a while.  I am pretty confused by all of the unqualified effusiveness I've read about it and hope that somebody can explain it to me.


  1. I struggled to get through this book but, ultimately and upon reflection, I realize it's one of the most brilliant pieces of contemporary literature I've read. You're absolutely right in just about everything you've said & felt with this book - for me, the history, the scale, and the prose are what do it for me; not to mention, as you said, the way he seems to tackle such bizarre, no-no topics with ease, as if they're natural (because, let's face it, in a way they are).

  2. I love your review - sometimes that happens to me too, I read something and think WTF, I think I missed why everyone loves this so much! I've got a copy of this on my shelf but am yet to get to it, but I like the idea of examining taboo topics in a way that is conversational and 'this is my life' kind of way. Note to self - read this soon!

  3. I really enjoyed this, and like you I couldn't put it down. I thought the story between Cal's grandparents could have been an entire book in itself. I did want to know more about Cal's thoughts on his transformation though.