Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

A child born into a Greek immigrant family in Detroit grows up as a girl till she is 14. Then she discovers that she is attracted to another girl. Then she discovers that she is not really a girl, but a hermaphrodite. Then she discovers that she doesn't like being a girl after all and decides to become a man, but not completely.
Sounds confusing?
Well, that is the story of Calliope for you in a nutshell, in Jeffey Eugenides's Pulitzer winning novel, Middlesex.
Nothing in this novel is simple and nothing in this novel is straightforward.

Nonlinear narrative technique and non-suspenseful novels are not new. Eugenides puts his own spin on both, starting with the choice of the narrator for this sweeping saga, Callie herself. (Since Callie is a girl for about 90% of the novel, I tend to think of her as "her".)

In spite of the non-linearity imposed on the narrative by the choices the author had made, the story moves in a fairly traditional linear fashion, in about four distinct episode. The story of the grand parents, the story of the parents, Callie's adolescence and self-discovery and finally, the aftermath of the discovery. Stringing these four beads is the voice of adult Callie ('Cal' I should say, because now he is a man for all practical purposes) about 40 years old, a mid-level staffer in the US State Department, currently a cultural attache at the US embassy in Berlin, trying his luck with a Japanese American architecture intern.

Eugenides puts his own Greek immigrant family background and growing up in Detroit in the 60's and  70's to good use in the first half of the novel. In tracing the immigrant lives of Cal's grandparents through the 20's against the backdrop of the first few automotive assembly lines, against the ever expanding Detroit skyline, and then through the depression era, the author brings alive a Detroit and its Greek immigrant community that has dissolved and disappeared from popular imagination long ago. As a long time resident of Metro-Detroit area, and as a person employed in the auto industry, this is obviously fascinating to me. Eugenides must have dived pretty deep into Greek immigrant history, family lore and Detroit history, for he weaves a richly textured tapestry of that time, place and people. However, some of the narrative tone and some of the plot devices appear to be at odds with the overall structure of the story. For example, I did not understand the significance of Simona (Callie's maternal grandmother) possibly being a lesbian. However,he is a good story teller, and carries the narrative engagingly and even entertainingly.

The description of the next generation (Callie's parents' courtship, their ups and downs in life) is dealt with in a rather perfunctory manner, so that they never come close to the reader. On top of that, we can never really forget that the story is being narrated by Callie herself. So, referring to the characters by their first names - Milton and Tessie, rather than calling them Dad and Mom, sounds weird. The weirdest of all is the name given to Callie's elder brother - Chapter Eleven! We never find out the significance of this reference nor his real name.

Of course, the bulk of the second half of the novel is dedicated to the life of Callie herself, and this is what I was really eagerly waiting for. As observed before, Eugenides is a skilled story teller with an easy (and stylish enough) prose style to keep the reader engaged. The reading feels good. I think the part dealing with Callie's admiration for and fascination with one of her girl classmates in eighth grade is the most fascinating and tender portion of the entire novel. However, even as we are getting comfortable into exploring this rather deliciously illicit early teenage love, the author jerks us out rudely to plant us in the office of Dr. Luce of Manhattan, the sex specialist. From then on, it is a roller coaster on adrenalin, powered by a case of Red Bulls till the end.

The 500 page novel has many delightful aspects, but they all occur episodically and in piece-meal fashion. Many important nuggets of information are revealed to the reader as if each one of them is the most important revelation since the Ten Commandments, but almost none of them lead to anything significant. Several important plot devices are introduced, perhaps because it seemed like a good idea at that time - they play their part for a bit - but they don't eventually lead to anything.

However, the biggest disappointment of the novel is the central figure and narrator, Callie her/himself. During the most crucial phase of the story - that of Callie's self discovery and eventual sexual transformation, though being narrated by Callie herself - we don't feel connected to her nor do we gain any insight into her being, the turmoil going on in her mind. Once we turn that 500th page, we close the book, stare out blankly into the distance through the window and sigh to ourselves - what is the point?

Once I finished the novel, I did a little bit of research on the novel. Apparently, the novel grew out of a short story (which is now a chapter int he book) for which Eugenides won some literary award in Europe. Also, it was amusing to note that Eugenides lived in Europe for a good part of the time during which he wrote this novel. So, I am guessing perhaps he had picked up some European literary sensibilities (a la Milan Kundera and the likes) and infused them into this novel which set on the stage of American Mid-western stolidity.

Seemed to have worked for him. This novel won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2003.

Eugenides's latest, The Marriage Plot, came out in 2011.

Comments

కల్పనారెంటాల said…
"Once we turn that 500th page, we close the book, stare out blankly into the distance through the window and sigh to ourselves - what is the point?"

పులిట్జర్ ప్రైజ్ వచ్చిందని చూసి నేను కూడా ఈపుస్తకం చదవాలనుకున్నాను. మీ సమీక్ష చూశాక పర్వాలేదు, వాయిదా వేసుకోవచ్చని అర్థమయింది.కాకపోతే కొన్ని పుస్తకాలు ఆ నేరేషన్ స్టైల్ పరిశీలించటానికి చదవవచ్చేమో అనిపిస్తుంది.
థేంక్యూ కల్పన గారు. నవల ముగింపులోనే అంతా ఉన్నది అని నేను ఎప్పుడూ అనుకోను, ఆ 500 పేజీల ప్రయాణాన్ని ఆస్వాదించడానికే చదువుతాను. ఈ నవలవంటి రచనల్లో పెద్దగా సస్పెన్సు కూడా ఉండదు. ఈయన రచనలో మిరుమిట్లు గొలిపే కథన శైలి లేదు గానీ, మొత్తానికి ఏదో ఆకర్షణ ఐతే ఉన్నది.
Anonymous said…
Well written review. I might never read the novel, but I liked the way you wrote the review. Nice!
Thank you, Tetageeti.