Middlesex the novel is presented as Cal’s third birth – his artistic creation of the “roller coaster ride of a single gene through time.” Cal’s voice is the heart of the story, which is told in a kind of first person omniscience, able to get close enough to follow a gene through generations, to get into the mind of a fetus or behind the eyes of people long dead, and far away enough to suddenly burst into strophe/antistrophe evocation.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Sept 2003, pb, rrpA$22.95, ISBN 0747561621
Cal “Calliope” Helen Stephanides is the perfect character. Male and female, child and adult, progeny and creator. Cal compares himself to Tiresias and although his story is utterly believable in the naturalist style, without the slightest touch of the supernatural or deus ex machina to justify the extraordinary events, the book is nevertheless full of magic. Middlesex the novel is presented as Cal’s third birth – his artistic creation of the “roller coaster ride of a single gene through time.” Cal’s voice is the heart of the story, which is told in a kind of first person omniscience which is able to get close enough to follow a gene through generations, to get into the mind of a fetus or behind the eyes of people long dead, and far away enough to suddenly burst into strophe/antistrophe evocation: “Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!” His Homeric voice is, as he says, also genetic.
It is the humour and narrative power which makes this book such an enjoyable read, but it is the rich characterisation of Cal that adds the vein of meaning that makes this a great book. Cal turns his unique circumstances, a tragedy in its own way, into a cause for celebration. We feel the pain of his self-discovery at the same time as we feel drawn into the way he connects his individualism to the link between his own family’s history – that DNA thread that binds generations, and that of the whole human race. This is a story of rebirths, metamorphoses, and always, of the love that binds life and history together.
The story begins with Cal, at 41 years of age, ready to tell his story. It is, in part, the simple story of a child born genetically male, but “appearing otherwise,” with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome – a male psuedohermaphrodite. Cal’s rather old and infirm doctor misses his tiny genitalia at birth, and he is raised as Callie, a girl, until puberty strikes and the male side of Cal begins to become more obvious. Cal’s awakening is, in itself, a beautifully told story – full of the pathos of a child becoming an adult. It could easily have been the story of any teenager – very few are comfortable in their own skin. Cal’s unique configuration, and his mixed experience is unusual, but his feelings aren’t:
Regret, already sogging me down, burst its dam. It seeped into my legs, it pooled in my heart. On top of panic that I’d lost my friend, I was suddenly beset by worried about my reputation. Was I really a slut? I hadn’t even liked it. But I had done it, hadn’t I…my face at the breakfast table was the face of all mathematical girls, counting days, measuring liquids. (378)
Cal’s movement from being a teenage girl to being the object of scientific curiosity, and finally to a kind of settlement in his extraordinary skin is full of suspense, and however well we know what will happen, it is still moving to follow Cal through the process. By the time he is being examined by the celebrated sexologist Dr Peter Luce, we have known Cal since before, during, and after birth: “the relentless glare of OR lights; white shoes squeaking over white floors; a housefly contaminating gauze; and all around me, up and down the halls of Women’s Hospital, individual dramas under way.” (215)
But Cal’s story is more than the story of a single person. It is also an epic family drama – the immigrant Greek’s experience in coming to America: “Retrace the filament and you go back to the cocoon’s beginning in a tiny knot, a first tentative loop.” (63) There are Cal’s grandparents – Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides – brother and sister reborn husband and wife on their journey from their impoverished and burning mountain village Bithynios to Detroit during a Turkish “ethnic cleansing” episode in the 1920s. The incest may be shocking when removed from its story, but as always in this novel we are taken step by step through the transformation and it all seems reasonable, if a little risky. At its heart, Lefty and Desdemona’s is a love story: “Their honeymoon proceded in reverse. Instead of getting to know each other, becoming familiar with likes and dislikes, ticklish spots, pet peeves, Desdemona and Lefty tried to defamiliarize themselves with each other.” (72) In spite of attempts to the contrary, Desdemona and Lefty form a family and begin the busy process of assimilating and supporting that family.
Through its rich backdrop, this is also the story of an era – the destruction of a town and its resurrection in Detroit’s Greek community. There is the Ford motor company where Lefty initially works, there is the rise of the Nation of Islam, there are the 1960s race riots, and the move from the city to the middle class suburbs. Eugenides makes this part of Detroit as real as his narrator – full of those small details and immediacy that drive a narrative forward. Throughout everything, from the earliest time frame in this narrative, with Desdemona on Mount Olympus (another mythic touch) to the modern man in search of love, there is Cal. We see Cal as Callie, through the eye of her father’s Super 8 camera: “Milton’s eye regarded us. It blinked. An eye as big as the Christ Pantocrator’s at church, it was better than any mosaic. It was a living eye, the cornea a little stained and pouchy This eye would stare us down for as long as ten seconds. Finally the camera would pull away, still recording.” (225) Cal is a superb creation, and the reader finishes this book with a touch of longing to go back and reread instantly.
Middlesex is one of those novels which has such a broad appeal, that it is hard to imagine a reader left unmoved. It will satisfy those looking for a simple funny, genre type read – a history novel, though it is so much more – a love story, and there are several – an epic with overtones of Greek tragedy and comedy built in. It will also satisfy those lovers of postmodernism, with its self-consciousness, its deeply psychological focus, and the rich vein of slightly back humour running throughout the book. Finally though, it is a wonderfully constructed story, a pure and easy to read narrative, full the kind of transcendence that all master writers aspire to. Middlesex is more than just the engaging story of Cal. It is the story of us all – our own genetic inheritance, and what it means to be a human.