Friday, February 15, 2013

Book Review - Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published by: Picador USA
Publication Date: 2002
Format: Paperback, 529 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy
Cal was born Callie. There was no surgery, there was no accident. There was just a fluke of genes and a lack of knowledge. Cal tells us his story. The journey from female to male. The fact that being a hermaphrodite, while he has male genes, being raised female, has influenced him greatly, but not as greatly as he told the eminent Dr. Luce. Yet, to tell his tale, we must travel back in time. How was he formed? What where the confluence of genes that led to him. Desdemona and her brother Lefty, his paternal grandparents. They fled Greece in the onslaught of the Turkish. They also fled the fact that they where siblings, as well as third cousins. It was a very small village they came from, a village where sometimes, babies where born who where neither one thing or another.

Resettling in Detroit, they started a new life with their cousin Lina and her husband of convenience Zizmo. Lina likes the girls rather more than the boys, so is quite shocked when she and Desdemona both become pregnant, damn that arousing play they went to see. These two children will one day be Cal's parents. Spanning generations, the book shows how hard it is to live between two worlds. Male and female, Greek and American, child and adult. Is it genes that make us, environment, or something else entirely? Is it our choice?

I can see why this book won the Pulitzer. It's really well written, thought provoking, and an interesting and daring subject (hello again incest! You thought I was going to say hermaphrodite didn't you?), and literally made for book club dissection, which I will be doing. Yet, while enjoying the read, I never really felt that invested in the book or that enamoured of the characters. Middlesex is really at least six books in one; memoir, historical fiction, romance, coming of age, disillusioned youth, drifter in the vein of Holden Caulfield, and finally a weird John Waters Midnight Cowboy camp mash-up worthy of David Lynch.

The generational structure, which was necessary, because it showed how Callie became Cal, had the downside of me growing to really care about a character only to have Eugenides speed up the narrative and push them aside for the newer character to take the stage. He also had the tendency to not only marginalize the previous characters, but to demonize them in some fashion. Lefty and Desdemona's taboo love was turned sour, Milton and Tessie and their budding romance, turned into upper middle class boredom. While it shows that, indeed, life goes on and changes, it changed my feelings so much over the course of the narrative, that I began to marginalize the characters in my own mind before the author did it for me. We even seemed to be in sync when Dr. Luce came around, because after all that build up, he was there marginally for two weeks and then gone. With trying to cover so much historical ground, I hate to say this because I felt this book was overly long anyway and spent most of it's time stringing us along, but he should have made it an even bigger epic, so that the rush to end a tale and begin another tale was omitted and we could still care for those we had been previously reading about. Shift the focus, don't eliminate the previous characters as much. And don't put Desdemona in the guest house and only remember her after 100 pages to add a nice cyclical feeling at the end.

Other things that bothered me where quite nit-picky. Sometimes the language was overly written, this superfluous verbosity made me want to smack Eugenides from time to time, just as you probably wanted to do to me for using the phrase superfluous verbosity. This tendency in fact reminded me very much of Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, wherein I felt that Chabon wrote the book with a thesaurus full of obscure words just to drive me slightly insane. While Eugenides doesn't reach Cabon's heights of undesirable loquaciousness, he did have me shaking my fist and looking for a dictionary every once in a while.

Eugenides has a deft hand for humor, often leading to me laughing out loud, but occasionally he took the humor too far and it became a parody that didn't work. For example, the midnight car chase, started out funny, with it basically being the most sedate car chase ever, but then, it went over the top, and almost became a scene from one of Matt Damon's Bourne movies, but with an odd out-of-body coda. This, this was too much. As was the peep show in San Francisco. I'm not saying that this didn't work, I'm saying, it was more John Waters or David Lynch than any other part of the book and therefore did not feel like it was a part of this book.

String us along for hundreds of pages, at least Eugenides delivered where it mattered most. Callie. While parts of "her" own story I didn't like, such as the lecherous older men when she was younger and her slightly pervy brother, once she became a teenager the book soared. All teenagers have the feeling that something is wrong with them, that they are different. While, with Callie, this is indeed the case, it was still a struggle anyone can identify with, we didn't all start out as adults. The feelings for the Obscure Object, could be any crush or first love. But what I was really struck by was how well a male writer could capture the beginning of womanhood, to use a cliched phrase. All girls go through the waiting game of when they will start to develop. When will they need a bra, when can they start shaving, when do they need deodorant. When will they start to menstruate. In Callie's case, it is a futile waiting game, yet it's the fact that "she" doesn't know that it's futile like we readers do, that makes it that much more poignant. For me it recaptured that time in my life. I felt all these emotions that I had forgotten about all over again. For me it took me back to the summer of 1991 and how my golden birthday was ruined by the arrival of the bane of womanhood. Yet this book made me grateful. Made me realize how lucky I was. Middlesex cast a golden light on my own development and made me happy that I could re-experience that time in my life. Recapture the uncertainty and, like Callie when she becomes Cal, know the feeling of what it's like to realize who you are and start on the path to becoming who you will be.


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