Friday, April 21, 2006

Middlesex--Jeffrey Eugenides

I read Eugenides' first novel The Virgin Suicides about a year ago, and was struck by how well written it was. The narration is in first person plural--something you don't see a lot of in current fiction--which had the effect of making me feel included in the story in a way I wouldn't have felt with a more traditional narrative voice. It has been pointed out that the narration acts like a Greek chorus as seen in classical Greek drama.

The Virgin Suicides is almost dreamlike in its telling of the story of five sisters in a strict Catholic family who are driven to kill themselves over a relatively short period of time. The narrator is actually the collective voice of all the young men, themselves on the cusp of puberty, who are fascinated by the mystery of all girls, and the glamorous tragedy of these in particular. The novel captures the confusion of adolescence, when young men are attracted to young women, while learning how little they understand them.

I was hoping for something as affecting in Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex, but I was disappointed. The story hangs on the spine of Calliope Stephanides, a girl raised in Detroit of the 1970, who is discovered to be a hermaphrodite at the age of 14. Many years later, having decided to live as a male, Cal Stephanides narrates the story of how he received the recessive genetic condition that made him neither fully male nor fully female.

The story starts with Cal's grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides, a Greek brother and sister who lived in a small village in Turkey while it was occupied by the Greeks. As they realize their attraction to each other--compounded by the absence of other romantic candidates--the Turks retake the country and they have to flee. On board a ship to America, they enact a courtship as if they had only just met, marrying at sea and beginning their new lives as man and wife.

This was the most interesting of the stories--the one where Eugenides most unleashed his ability to imagine other places and times and make them real. The subsequent story of his parents generation--first cousins on top of the illicit parentage of one of them--simply doesn't seem to engage his interest, and if one can say he "skips lightly" over anything in a book this long, one would have to say it about this section.

Cal's troubled girlhood is really unremarkable, which is bizarre given the lengthy set up to her birth. She has her share of childhood experiences and friendship troubles, but her condition escapes notice until she fails to hit puberty. At that point, after close observation by a specialist, the recommendation is made to surgically conform her body to her gender identification--female. Cal, however, has been lying to the doctor about how she truly feels about topics of sexuality and attraction, and so s/he declares himself to be a boy and runs away.

At this point, I lost my patience with the story. Mind you, I had read about seven thousand pages by now, all of which seemed to be foreshadowing things that simply weren't happening. And after that point, it got silly. Cal found his way to San Francisco where he performed in a hermaphroditic strip club. The local priest tried to extort money from Cal's parents, and Cal's father died in a high speed chase across the Canadian border. Eventually, I just put the sucker down.

What I loved about The Virgin Suicides was the amazing way he demonstrated the different worlds the boys and girls lived in--the oppressive horror of the girls' restricted lives, and the romantic way the boys perceived those lives. I had hoped for Middlesex to take that contrast one step closer, showing how the boy/girl experienced the differences of living with those different gender identities. Instead, when I got to mutual declarations of hermaphroditic free love in San Francisco, I found myself in a different book than the one I had wanted to read.

I started this post in March of 2006, and only finished it in October of the same year. And in the intervening 7 months, I have had no desire to go back and finish this one. Guess I'll cross it off my To Be Read list.

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