I really wanted to adore Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex. My reasoning went, "The narrator is an intersex person! It concerns race and gender relations in mid-century Detroit! What's not to love?" And I don't want to paint things too bleakly: I did really enjoy it in parts, and even stayed up far past my bedtime one night reading it. But, disappointingly due to my high hopes, there were other aspects of the book that left me incredibly frustrated, and overall I ended up thinking it was just okay. I feel especially down about this because in a way my frustrations with the book weren't anything it did wrong per se: it's your standard meaty, well-plotted family epic treading the boundary between superstition, coincidence and fate; old world and new world. I've loved many books that operate on the same basic set of standards, from John Irving's Cider House Rules and Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, to Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Peter Carey's Illywhacker. The things that bothered me about Middlesex were also present in all four of those, and it makes me sad to think that if I went back to re-read them, the love would be gone. Perhaps my frustration with Eugenides's novel was just the product of poor timing on my part, or maybe I really am getting tired of certain formulaic traits of The Modern Family Epic.
But before we get to all that, let's talk about what worked for me. Eugenides is a brisk, readable storyteller, and our narrator Cal(lie) Stephanides takes us on a multi-textured journey that begins in a working-class neighborhood in 1960s Detroit, loops back to a tiny village on the border of Greece and Turkey where an incestuous young brother and sister are caught in the crossfire of a border dispute; follows them to Smyrna, onto the boat to America, and through the lean rum-running years of the Great Depression. Flashing back and flashing forward, we get to know Cal(lie)'s parents during the years of World War II, and follow the birth and development of their second child, whom they mistakenly believe to be a girl until her fourteenth year. We get, of course, Callie's own journey of discovery as well, knowing from the first page that "she" is now living as a man in Berlin, but waiting to find out how and why.
An interesting plot, featuring strong evocations of place and time, and occasional passages of insight that impressed me. For example, I love that Cal, balancing the 1970s nurture-heavy theories on sexual development against the 1990s fad for evolutionary biology, writes of himself near the end of the novel,
[I]t's not as simple as that. I don't fit into any of these theories. Not the evolutionary biologists' and not Luce's either. My psychological makeup doesn't accord with the essentialism popular in the intersex movement, either. Unlike other so-called male pseudohermaphrodites who have been written about in the press, I never felt out of place being a girl. I still don't feel entirely at home among men. Desire made me cross over to the other side, desire and the facticity of my body. [...] free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.
I like Cal's refusal of dualities here: he doesn't identify as a man who was mistakenly raised as a girl, but as a person who was first a girl and then a man, and at the same time as someone whose gender was never as simple as one or the other. I like the reminder of human complexity, and that the divisions we create (man/woman; black/white; straight/gay) are not as cut-and-dried as we often like to believe.
But while the "what" of the novel was engaging to me, the "how" of it often left me unimpressed and even annoyed with its cookie-cutter adherence to generic conventions. Let's talk about the Modern Family Epic, and how Middlesex is pretty much a carbon copy of any other example of this genre one might pick up:
To begin with the small stuff, the Modern Family Epic gravitates toward quirky names and nicknames. Whereas Hotel New Hampshire gives us Susie the Bear, and The Moor's Last Sigh features Aires-pronounced-Irish, Middlesex has both Chapter Eleven Stephanides (Cal's brother's actual name) and the Obscure Object of Desire (Callie's nickname for her adolescent crush, which struck me as way overly cute, even if it is taken from a Luis Buñuel film).
So too, the Modern Family Epic can't resist allegorical coincidences. John Irving makes the valid point that real life is full of coincidences, and that people only look askance at them when they crop up in novels. I accept that this is true. Nonetheless, I couldn't help groaning at the level of cutesy coincidence present in Middlesex. "OF COURSE," I would groan: "OF COURSE the family moves into a house on Middlesex Street - because Callie is in the middle of two sexes." "OF COURSE Callie is cast as Tiriesias in the school play - he was first one gender, then the other." And so on. This kind of touch seems designed as an invitation to the reader to chuckle with self-satisfied irony at what we know and the characters don't, which I found vaguely annoying.
In a related point, The Modern Family Epic loves multiple big events to happen at the same exact moment, which often allows the narrator to tell of the simultaneously-unfolding developments through a kind of split-screen, back-and-forth cutting technique. Oftentimes, there ends up being a dire significance to events which happen at the same time in these books; so, for example, Rushdie's Midnight's Children bestows all the children born at the stroke of midnight on the day of India's independence with the ability to communicate telepathically. In Middlesex this happens A LOT. Callie's parents are not only related to each other through multiple blood ties, but are conceived on the same exact night. One of them is born on the same exact night, at the same exact time, that both their fathers are engaged in a dangerous car crash on the ice around the US-Canada border. Callie's own birth magically coincides with her grandfather's loss of speech due to his first major stroke. Callie is saved from having to go on a dreaded Greek vacation by the convenient Turkish invasion of Cyprus on the very eve of her departure. Et cetera. Maybe this technique is supposed to endow the narrative with a greater narrative tension and sort of epic quality, but in this particular case it didn't work for me.
Similarly, the Modern Family Epic almost always brings the plot around full-circle by the ending. I usually don't mind this device, which in any case is so pervasive that I would have been shocked had Middlesex not employed it. What did bother me, though, was the excessive use of flash-forwarding in the first two-thirds of the novel, and how, in the last third, the flash-forwarding is replaced by Cal's frequent explicit reminders of past plot-points and how they relate to what's currently going on. To take the first point: I think flash-forwarding (basically heavy-handed foreshadowing, such as "In a few more years I would come to regret the decision to enroll in the Army, but at the time it seemed the easiest path to a college education") can be effective in moderation, but damn, the Modern Family Epic loves this technique. I actually had to stop reading Midnight's Children because it was so pervasive that I felt I knew the whole story with 200 pages remaining of the novel. Middlesex isn't quite that bad, but it does play free and easy with the flash-forwarding. But THEN, when Eugenides is wrapping up all his plot-based loose ends and bringing the characters back around to confront the mistakes and foibles of their forebears (like you do), he has Cal write stuff like this:
Eight years earlier, policemen had raided a blind pig on Twelfth Street in Detroit. Now, at the start of 1975, they raided Sixty-Niners.
Because we wouldn't remember the previous, rather pivotal police raid without being reminded? Just a few pages later it happens again:
Back in 1933, a disembodied voice had spoken to my grandmother through the heating grate. Now, forty-two years later, a disguised voice spoke to my father over the phone.
and AGAIN, on the very next page:
At this same train station my grandparents had arrived a half century earlier. Lefty and Desdemona, one time only, had revealed their secret here to Sourmelina; and now their son, who had never learned it, was pulling in behind the station, also secretly.
As the end of the book nears, this happens with increasing frequency. "Yes, Mr. Eugenides," I wanted to shout, "I actually HAVE read a novel before." I mean, really—does the author have so little confidence in his reader that he feels he must pound us over the head with every little parallel presented in the text? Has he no faith that we would be sufficiently perceptive to pick up on the "secrecy," "history repeats itself," and "misguided authority" themes on our own, without having Cal put up big flashing arrows all around them? I guess that's what really irked me about Middlesex: I'm a better reader than I felt it gave me credit for, and I believe many others are, too.
Like I said, it's not that I harbor any intrinsic dislike for the Modern Family Epic genre. But Middlesex seems to conform to all the generic stereotypes without adding anything unexpected—except Cal(lie)'s gender, which we know about from page one. Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh follows these conventions, but adds to them a series of brain-bending plot twists that keep the reader on her toes. Zadie Smith's White Teeth conforms to them, but contributes in addition an edgy, uncomfortable humor that would make people from just about any cultural background laugh with guilty recognition. Peter Carey's Illywhacker features some of them, but also has a first-person narrator who admits to being a compulsive liar, which allows Carey to play with the conventions even while making use of them. I'm just not sure what Middlesex brings to the table in addition to this set of conventions I've seen so many times before.
Which begs the question, I'm sure, of the value of novelty versus that of tradition. Why should a book offer anything new, necessarily? Am I just looking for a gimmick? If it ain't broke, and so on. I like to think I'm not looking for anything as simple as a gimmick, but I do value freshness, subtlety, and a certain rebelliousness around genre in my reading—particularly my contemporary reading—and personally, I found Middlesex a bit lacking in all three. Possibly, though, it was unfair of me to expect something outside Eugenides's intentions, and possibly my reaction to the book was a product of reading it at the same time as Anne Carson's Oresteia translations and Nox and John Ashbery's Notes from the Air, all of which blew my mind rather than leaving it only lukewarm.
Middlesex was my eighth and final book for the Challenge that Dare not Speak its Name. It's too bad that the challenge ended on a negative note, because I really enjoyed it as a whole!