Before I knew anything about Eugenides’ (sort of) epic novel Middlesex I assumed without thinking much about it that Middlesex was some sort of place, like Middlemarch. A place-derived title often doesn’t promise a very interesting read but I like to check out Pulitzer winners if they don’t sound too depressing. When I started reading and figured out that Middlesex was much more literal than just a name of a place (which it also is), suddenly I expected more from the story. And generally I wasn’t disappointed.
Middlesex is a very scholar-friendly book. Not only is it rife with metaphors and allusions – it self-analyzes. It actually robs you of some of the satisfaction of feeling smart. You don’t have time to self-congratulate for noticing the, say, Homeric allusions when the narrator explains them. Hardly do you realize the importance of the narrator’s location in Berlin when (s)he informs you that all the split places attract him because of a sense of affinity. At one point Stephanides-the narrator says he likes to draw attention to the mechanics of writing fiction and that’s exactly what happens all the time. Not all of the metaphors are explained directly but when Callie is seducing her friend in her sleep in the moonlight what movie is the friend’s brother making? A vampire movie, of course. The book constantly plays with the reader in these small ways. Personally, once I got used to how blatant it was I actually liked it a lot. Even though I’ve grown bored with most postmodernist techniques like these, I’ll still bite if the story is interesting and Callie’s story actually is.
The novel goes beyond Callie’s life to start from her grandparents’: their flight from Greece to the USA, their incestuous relationship and their immigrant difficulties. I find this part much weaker than Callie’s own story. I feel that the humorous tone, so successful in the later part, clashes with the descriptions of war violence and of the brother-sister marriage. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the first part unnecessary but I definitely did not enjoy it as much. When we get to Callie’s own life though, the story finds the right voice. Like a good postmodernist novel that it is, it welds together many different genres: social commentary during the race riots, teen romance with the Obscure Object, prep school drama, action adventure and, most of all, the mystery of how and when Callie discovered the truth about her body (to name just a few). Callie’s voice, observant, ironic, unapologetic, combines all these together, at its best reminding me of Lolita. While this is obviously a humongous praise for any novel, I believe it justified. The novels share a similar tone, flagrant erudition, the themes of European immigrants, unconventional sexuality (I’m putting it mildly), and, most of all, the double character: a teen girl and an older, “satyric” man. That they are the same character fits in great with all the other twists Middlesex adds to well-known motifs.
Hermaphroditism seems like a subject inviting certain garishness and sensationalism, which Eugenides avoids in quite an impressive way. Even when Cal almost literally works as a circus freak, he makes it sound mythical rather than cheap. This is certainly the biggest win of the novel. What doesn’t work quite as convincingly, I think, is the metaphor of middleness, which becomes forced: how being in between sexes is like, well, everything else. Immigrants are between their native land and the new home; teenagers are between children and adults; everyone is in the generation between their parents’ and children’s. See what I mean? This message is so generic that virtually useless. Despite this problem, though, Middlesex is a good read, the kind that interests you, tells you something new and makes sure you feel smart and perceptive all the way.