Monday, August 23, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex was one of those books I started to read while I was in college, only to be interrupted when the school year started up.  I enjoyed the two-thirds of it (approximately) I read several years ago, so this summer I reread it.  I actually think I liked it more than I did on my first attempt.  Maybe approaching it with more experience as a reader and a writer added to the enjoyment.  The voice of the narrator and the presentation of the story unfolding across several generations was a tough trick to pull off, and Eugenides definitely accomplished this feat.

The story is narrated by Cal Stephanides (born Calliope), a Greek-American raised in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s.  Cal begins the story by explaining that he was born twice, first as a girl and then, fifteen years later, as a boy.  The opening is half David Copperfield and half Tristam Shandy; We get hints of Cal's conception and birth, but before that story begins, the novel's action leaps backward and forward in time.  Forward to the adult Cal, living as a man in Berlin, and backward to the war between Greece and Turkey in 1919, where Cal's story began in his grandparents' genes.

I don't think it spoils anything too much to reveal that Cal's grandmother, Desdemona, and his grandfather, "Lefty" are siblings who marry one another (acting like strangers) while they flee their war-torn village. On a boat to America, Lefty pretends to court Desdemona, and they are married by the ship's captain. When they get to America, they move to Detroit, where they live with a cousin who keeps their secret.  Lefty begins to work at Ford's factory, and Desdemona eventually finds work with the Nation of Islam. They have a son, Milton, who joins the army to impress the girl he goes on to marry, and the family witnesses the rise and fall of Detroit in the 20th Century. They get into the restaurant business, starting franchises of "Hercules Hot Dogs" across the country (the hot dogs are sliced so that they "flex" when they're cooked). They make enough to move to the suburbs and join the upper middle class, and the parts of the story that take place in Grosse Point are about maintaining one's identity through shifting situations (a recurring theme through the book).

For the first third of the book, Cal is more of a presence than a character.  We see him as an adult, explaining his life in Berlin, working for the State Department, and he explains the genetic anomaly that made him a hermaphrodite. As the family's backstory unfolds, Cal interrupts, omniscient and wry, throwing in allusions to Greek myth and previews of what occurs later in the book.  I loved the narrative voice in the story, and having read both this novel and The Virgin Suicides, I think it's a voice the author is getting better with.  It's really engaging, and there's a warmth and intelligence behind it that draws you in and compels you to follow the story.

This is a very ambitious novel, as much about a transgendered character as it is about the experiences of American immigrants in the first half of the 20th Century.  It's about putting down roots in a place, transforming to become a citizen, and the idea of transformation echoes between each narrative unfolding over the course of the story.  Even outside the story of Cal's own transformation, the changes in Detroit (most notably the 1967 riots) affect the direction of the story.  Eugenides attempts to draw lines between past and present, personal and national history, and on the whole he succeeds.

The last scene, which turned out to be my favorite in the book, reflects on Cal's place in his family after he starts to live as a male. The story comes back to a Greek funeral tradition, mentioned early in the book, in which a man stands guard at the house.  It was a resonant way to end the story, and I'm glad that I finally finished reading this book, even if it did take a few years to get back to it. 

1 comment:

Matt said...

One of my all-time favorites. Great post!