Novel Review: "Middlesex"

Posted: September 11, 2007 in Book Review, Middlesex, Novel

The narrator of Middlesex, Calliope (“Cal”) Helen Stephanides, is upfront with readers about what to expect, the novel beginning straight-off with the disclosure: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl (…) and then again, as a teenage boy”. Cal is a hermaphrodite — quite literally a middle-sex. (The title unfortunately also refers to another part of the novel — one of many un-subtle strokes that feel far too forced.) Cal begins the novel when he is age forty-one (feeling “another birth coming on”), and tells his (and her) story — occasionally speaking from the present (where he lives in Germany, in the employ of the American foreign service), but most of the time inhabiting the long-lost past.

Cal tells how he became who he is. The contemporary scenes reveal him still trying to find himself, a bit — and in particular trying to find love. These scenes are usually just small bursts — chapter-beginnings, before the reminiscences take over –, but they work quite well: reader’s are genuinely interested in this odd life and how he came to where he is, as well as what he is still going through.
So readers are curious about this narrator and his unusual … being. Unfortunately, Cal largely does tell his tale chronologically. That wouldn’t be such a problem except that he begins a tad earlier than necessary: the book is 529 pages long, and Cal makes his official entrance (with his first birth, in the form of an infant-girl (or something resembling one)) on page 215. He pops up a few times before, but the first two hundred pages are largely devoted to his family: his Greek grandparents fleeing their homeland to Detroit, and then his parents.
It’s not that this family-history is uninteresting. The Greek scenes, including the burning of Smyrna, and then his grandparents odd (and — genetically speaking — ill-advised) courtship and marriage, and their adapting to America is all quite entertaining. Eugenides is a good storyteller, and he offers some fine episodes. Detroit (Eugenides’ hometown), in particular, and the changes it undergoes between the grandparents’ arrival and the early 1970s is very well done, for example.
But little of all this seems to bear much on the main story — on Cal, who keeps popping up only to disappear again in the background (and in the future). Middlesex is a family saga, but Eugenides does a poor job of presenting family: these are individuals whose paths sometimes cross, and while there are times when the relationships (the love, the hate, the needs) are clear and the mutual interactions made manifest most of the time they remain individuals, islands all. Most of the best bits of the novel take place in isolation from family, whether its grandma working for the Nation of Islam or Cal’s adventures. Indeed, many members of the family dip completely out of sight for long periods of time, even when Cal comes on the scene — often functioning as little more than bit background players.
Cal is the ultimate example of ‘we are what our parents (and grand-parents, etc.) make us’, and presumably this is in part what Eugenides is trying to show with his sprawling saga, but it does not fully convince — in part also because, though we hear from Cal at age forty-one, and follow him through childhood and early adolescence, there is precious little about the twenty-five years in between, formative years (for most people) that are almost totally glossed over.
There is also the problem of the narrative voice. The forty-one year old Cal tells the story in the first person, yet easily falls back into the voice of an omniscient narrator, presenting details from long before his birth — and other people’s thoughts, and and and ….. He makes some excuses for this, but his unconvincing certainty undermines his tale.
Things improve some when Eugenides lets the young Cal take centre stage, but the novel remains terribly episodic. Some of these episodes, with Cal feeling sexual confusion from a young age, are very good, but they are still not enough and leave many questions unanswered.
Very striking throughout the novel is how characters are left behind, brutally abruptly, hardly deserving of a second thought (except as Cal dredges them up again in writing his tale). Loves, acquaintances: as soon as they are no longer physically present they are literally written off. Those that continue to live nearby — relatives and the like — are also often lost from view, and when they pop up again it often comes almost as a surprise that they are still around.
Some of Cal’s childhood experiences are well-done — including a teen-relationship with the Object (as in: That Obscure Object of Desire) — , and the book becomes quite gripping as the inevitable discovery (she is more he) comes. The family turns to a specialist, in New York, in an effort to determine what exactly Cal is (and what should be done to her or him). From there Eugenides takes one of several unfortunate turns, as Cal runs away from what the doctor wishes to do to her (and from her family) and decides to become what s/he is meant to become all herself. Again, there are some decent scenes but too much is unlikely and too much is rushed.
There are several plot-twists and catastrophes in the novel that are overdone: an unnecessary stage-death, a supposed kidnapping (with catastrophic results), some Detroit riot scenes (which a very young Cal intrudes upon). It’s unclear why Eugenides didn’t trust his story for all the rather sensational and juicy bits it naturally offers.
Middlesex feels like two books squeezed, uncomfortably, into one. Or even more. There are several hints that Eugenides was aiming for a Middlemarch-type canvas of a locale (Detroit) — there’s the title, for one, and George Eliot is among the few authors mentioned more than once. But Middlemarch didn’t aim for generational sweep as well, covering a much shorter time frame. And Eugenides wants his novel also to be both family saga and the story of an individual, and he doesn’t manage to tie the two together particularly well.
It’s frustrating, because the book reads easily and, often, very well — the episodes are often gripping, the characters — when he dwells on them — involving. The best parts are the most intimate: the contemporary scenes, and the ones focussed entirely on young Cal (before s/he runs away — once he’s on his own the scenes aren’t nearly as successful).
Eugenides took a long time to write this novel (it appears nine years after last work), and it seems he might have taken too much time to dwell and elaborate on it. Occasionally there is something to be said for rushing a book. Eugenides writes well enough, and he is a story-teller too — apparently brimming with stories. But Middlesex has the feel of a too pieced-together group of episodes and anecdotes, with little flow. (Eugenides’ annoying habit of warning what is to come (Father Mike’s wife’s nagging “hadn’t led him to his desperate act …” yet, mentioned 150 pages before the act itself, is only one of many examples) doesn’t help matters in the least.)
This could have been a fine sweeping Detroit-centred saga of 20th century Greek-immigrant life in which Cal’s place is incidental, or it could have been a solid novel about Cal pure and simple (in which everything else can find a place, but much subordinated). Instead, the novel — a pleasure to read, for the most part — closes leaving the reader dissatisfied. It’s neither fish nor fowl, neither he nor she, just an uncomfortably imbalanced Middlesex.

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