Middlesex: A Dissentby Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002).
Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel Middlesex is a radical departure from his successful debut, The Virgin Suicides. The difference smacks of a younger sibling’s revolt against the oppressive accomplishments of the first-born. While The Virgin Suicides traced one year on a suburban block, Middlesex is a multi-generational epic, encompassing a Greek-American immigration tale and a coming-of-age story, all narrated by a hermaphrodite, Cal Stephanides, nee Calliope. Presumably in part because Eugenides was scrambling to fit all these elements into one narrative, the results are uneven, sporadically excellent yet unconvincing on the whole.
The critical reception to the book has been largely warm. Reviewers have rightly praised the generosity and big-heartedness of the novel. But many have seemed blinded to—or reluctant to acknowledge—the book’s major failures, perhaps due to their leftover reverence for The Virgin Suicides, or out of deference to the love and effort the author clearly invested in the project. Some reviewers have noted that the book’s amalgam of genres reflects the split nature of the narrator’s body, and Eugenides confirmed this intention in an interview in BOMB Magazine, saying, "The book, like its hermaphroditic narrator, was meant to be a hybrid." Such facile symmetry, however, often feels like an excuse for the novel’s lack of cohesion.
The book’s two parts are not explicitly partitioned, but rather, like Cal’s genders, each leaks into and affects the other. The first part tells the story of Cal’s Greek family—his grandparents’ immigration to Detroit, and his parents’ assimilation and upward mobility to Grosse Pointe. The ostensible point of this preamble is to trace the gene, passed on through inbreeding over generations, that causes Cal’s unusual condition. This part of the novel is elaborately, lovingly imagined, but it always seems just that—imagined. Cal takes the license of unrealistically omniscient third-person narration, but also incorporates his first-person perspective, punctuating the story with foreshadowing and updates from the present. By the time Cal arrives at the anxiously anticipated point of his own life, he rushes through it, glossing over potentially rich and provocative questions.
The novel’s first part thus feels like a far too long prelude, and much of Cal’s own story feels cursory, because he has already squandered so much time and space setting it up. The writing, occasional sparks of poetry notwithstanding, is hampered by a great lack of subtlety. Cal’s grandparents, who are also siblings, stage a decorous courtship on their ship to America, pretending to have met on board. "Why did they do it?" Cal asks in a parenthetical aside. "Why did they go to all the trouble? Couldn’t they have said they were already engaged?… Yes, of course they could have. But it wasn’t the other travelers they were trying to fool; it was themselves." This kind of question-and-answer should be the province of the Cliffs’ Notes, or, ideally, the reader. But Cal, unable to trust the reader to understand or even remember what he says, encumbers the narrative with such exegesis, as well as periodic recaps. The impression is not so much insulting as endearingly earnest; Cal just really wants to make sure we get it. But it weighs down and slows down the prose unnecessarily, and deprives the reader of the enjoyable interpretive work of reading.
The consistency throughout the novel lies in Cal’s voice, unassuming and reflective. At one point, he observes that emotions aren’t covered by single words, like "joy," "sadness," and "regret." Instead, he believes in "the happiness that attends disaster," "the disappointment of sleeping with one’ s fantasy," and "the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age." But Cal unwittingly belies his own creed when he later refers to it. As a teenager, Callie avoids mirrors, explaining that "‘The hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age’" started early for me. This statement elides the distinctions Cal was initially trying to make. Not only is this a sign of intellectual carelessness, it points to a major weakness in the novel: Cal never really explores the uniqueness of his position. The hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age is a distinct and universal feeling with its own special poignancy and intimations of mortality. The hatred of mirrors that begins in a hermaphrodite’s adolescence is something else entirely.
The experience of being a hermaphrodite, in other words, is not universal at all, although Cal suggests otherwise when he says, "You will want to know: How did we get used to things?… Did Calliope have to die in order to make room for Cal? To all these questions I offer the same truism: It’s amazing what you can get used to… My change from girl to boy was far less dramatic than the distance anybody travels from infancy to adulthood." This cop-out is the harvest of 500 pages. By choosing such an unusual protagonist, Eugenides assumed the responsibility to explore the singularity of his experience. By shirking that responsibility, he turns his narrator’s body into a gimmick.
The book’s superficiality is also manifest in the coincidences that pepper it. Cal’s parents are conceived on the same night, after their parents watch a play about the Minotaur, a hybrid monster. As a child, Callie lives on Middlesex Boulevard, and the adult Cal lives in Berlin, a city of two halves. James Wood, in his New Republic review, criticized such serendipity as "the soft side of magical realism, which should be called hysterical realism." These coincidences, like any in fiction, lack the resonance of real-life ones. In life, a coincidence is a marvelous trick of chance, or an indication of some mysterious controlling force. In fiction, we know there is always a controlling force—the writer.
Equally contrived is the running engagement with American history. In the vein of Forrest Gump, though less absurdly, Middlesex features a parade of American history in which Cal and the Stephanides family play unexpected roles in the Nation of Islam, the Detroit riots, and mid-seventies San Francisco, to where, in an unconvincing plot turn, the well-behaved Callie runs away and stars in a freak show.
The most successful part of the novel takes place during Callie’s adolescence in Grosse Pointe, when she is first starting to suspect her abnormality, and she falls in love with a female friend, dubbed the Obscure Object, a wealthy, freckled chain-smoker who yawns in class. As Eugenides first showed in The Virgin Suicides, he is a master portrayer of suburban adolescence, and his talent shows through here in the vivid characterization and natural dialogue. Callie’s experiences are especially poignant because of the tension between the universal questions of adolescence and the unusual answers we know are waiting in store. "There were times when I felt that something was different about the way I was made," Callie says with endearing understatement. And then, hopefully, "Maybe it happened like this to everybody." Perhaps because it was closer to Eugenides’s own experience—nothing is more normal than the fear of being abnormal—he was able to render the emotions with nuance and sensitivity.
In the context of this new book, against the backdrop of the mass popular appeal of his debut novel-turned-movie, it is easy to forget that Eugenides is a hugely talented writer. Rereading The Virgin Suicides refreshed my memory. It is slim, dense, and efficient. The writing is relentlessly lyrical. A subordinate clause in that book provides more evocative characterization than whole chapters in Middlesex. Some reviewers have said that Middlesex is the funnier of the two, but in fact it is merely jokier. In the subtle, ominous humor of The Virgin Suicides, you aren’t sure you’re supposed to laugh, but you want to, whereas in Middlesex, you know you’re supposed to laugh, regardless of whether you really want to.
A few months ago, Eugenides published an excerpt from Middlesex in the New Yorker, titled "The Obscure Object." The narrator’s voice was plainspoken and intimate, and the characters were absolutely alive. The adolescent tumult of desire, confusion, and recklessness was vivid enough to trigger déjà vu for anyone who has been fourteen. I suspect Eugenides knows this is the strongest part of the novel, since he chose to excerpt it and to read essentially the same part recently at the 92nd Street Y.
Studying this excerpt is an illuminating exercise. For considerations of length, Eugenides was forced to prune his writing. Perhaps every word he cut pained him, but the resulting story does not suffer for it; it benefits. The writing has a subtlety and pace Eugenides achieved only under duress. Even in the context of the novel, this section loses something, diluted by additional scenes and lines, and the surrounding sprawl of the rest of the work. Although it is surely an accomplishment to sustain a narrative for 529 pages, it also creates the need to justify its size. A big book makes a lot of demands on the reader: in terms of stamina and attention span, and, not least, because they are heavy and cost more. Especially lamentable is a book whose bulk is due to an unrestrained plot and unsubtle writing. In "The Obscure Object," Eugenides distilled all the life of his novel into an unforgettable story, reminding us that his talent isn’t gone, it’s just smothered.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a freelance writer living in Boerum Hill.