Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Place and a Condition

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides


"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan in August of 1974."

So begins this book and the explanation for this intriguing conundrum comes promptly thereafter, when we learn of the narrator's ancient genetic mutation, in conjunction with a brief smattering of the contradictions in the speaker's life that led up to, and immediately followed, this astounding discovery. Fascinating, right - and that's just on the first pages of this novel.

While the investigation into only this one dramatic life-changing event could easily make an excellent novel, Eugenides also gives us the history of how this mutation came about, with the family's history starting with her/his grandparents and their escape from Greece. Together we learn the genealogy of Calliope Helen Stephanides and the events leading to her become Cal. While this sounds somewhat cut and dry, Eugenides' style is such that every piece of the puzzle is artistically drawn and gently fitted together. However, there isn't much mystery here, since we know from the outset where we are going; but how Eugenides leads us there is what makes this book so amazing.

Although broken down into four ‘books' Eugenides doesn't stick completely to a chronological account. Right from the beginning, we feel that much of this is a story told in memories more than flashbacks, without ever placing the action in further back than January 1960. It is almost like watching a movie while listening to the director's commentary, with careful peppering of the historical references to Calliope/Cal. The trials and tribulations of these ancestors therefore take on a rosy wash to them, and despite the harshness of some of these events, the wisdom of hindsight has a softening effect. Add to this a fine balance of first and third person narrations allowing the events prior to 1960 to include conversations, along with observances by Calliope/Cal and how these events influenced the more recent past and present.

While this mixture may sound like it could be confusing, there wasn't even one instance where the reader will feel unsure or confused. This is due to very subtle use of language alterations, which carefully color each of the eras included in the story, using older or more modern language as the settings required. Yet, the distinctive voice throughout the novel keeps this from feeling inconsistent or fake. Not all writers can walk this thin line, yet this is masterful and stylistic writing which won Eugenides a Pulitzer Prize for this book in 2003.

It is important to note this book doesn't answer all the questions it poses. For instance, Calliope/Cal has an older brother who is called Chapter Eleven, which Americans will identify as professional slang for filing bankruptcy. We never learn why they call him this brother, although we're sure that can't be his real name. We also don't get heavily detailed information about some of the other characters, and several feel more vivid than others do. Mind you, we don't always want every character getting equal billing, and since Calliope/Cal is the central character, it is on her/him that we can and should concentrate. This is what we get in spades - Calliope/Cal and how she/he becomes, develops, changes, and deals with her/his condition. We always feel Calliope/Cal's presence in the narrative, and we often find ourselves looking at those events through his/her eyes. This means that while the obvious, even clichéd ways that authors develop their characters isn't evident in this book, we certainly get a far more subtle, almost subliminal indication of Calliope/Cal and how she/he gets from point A to point B.

However, what struck me as most impressive is how Eugenides instills Calliope/Cal's sexual dichotomy through this narrative. Since the book tells us early on that Cal is in his 40s when he accounts these events, we know that he has been living the majority of his life as a man. Yet, there is something very specifically feminine in almost all of what Cal is, says and does. Eugenides seems to be telling us that despite biology and Cal's own realization that he really was and is a boy, the effect of spending 16 years as a girl, can never totally wear off. Portraying this, without saying it straight out, is nothing short of genius.

This is a book for savoring, but it also isn't the easiest thing to read. I'd say you should keep it for a time when you can concentrate on it, because if you do, it will be well worth the effort. The subtle use of language and style is exceptional and the subject matter of the book is uniquely absorbing. I can't recommend this highly enough and give it a full five stars out of five.


"Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (in iBook or audiobook form), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my review that appears on Curious Book Fans, Dooyoo and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.