Review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, from the Toronto Star in September 2002.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ new book isn’t the only long-awaited second novel coming out this season – Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man will be along in October – but it’s the one with the most to live up to. After all, Eugenides’ nine-years-ago debut, The Virgin Suicides, was a more promising book than, say, Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. Both of them balanced literary ambition with crowd-pleasing camp, but ultimately Eugenides’ sad, creepy tale carried greater resonance.
While The Virgin Suicides was slim and compressed, Eugenides works on a new scale with Middlesex. It’s a 500-pager, a long family saga spanning most of the 20th century and stuffed with Big Themes: personal turmoil and political cataclysm, incestuous love and familial guilt, labour unrest and immigrant unease, crime and capitalism. Small wonder that it’s been gathering pre-publication buzz.
Like its predecessor, Middlesex also concerns sexual confusion amid the leafy streets of Grosse Pointe, Mich. As the very first sentence informs us, the novel’s hero is a hermaphrodite: Callie Stephanides is born a girl in 1960, but reborn at the age of 14 as a boy. The adult Cal, a male diplomat living in Berlin, relates the story of his/her own early life, culminating in that traumatic rebirth. He also looks back in time, recounting the adventures of his parents and paternal grandparents.
Those grandparents are Desdemona and Lefty, who flee the Asia Minor village of Bithynios after the Turks invade in 1922. Narrowly escaping a mass slaughter at the city of Smyrna, the two board a boat bound for the U.S. and marry en route. They settle with relatives in Detroit, and while Desdemona struggles to adapt her silk-growing skills to the new world, Lefty puts in a brief stint at a Ford factory before opening a bar. Their son, Milton, becomes a restaurateur himself, marrying and raising two children of his own. His younger child is our narrator, Callie/Cal.
It’s best not to dwell on the fact that in these early sections, the narrative voice relates events in more detail than a not-yet-born Cal could possibly possess. Cal playfully alludes to this disconnect at times, but that doesn’t make for anything approaching an unreliable narrator subtext. In fact, the technique seems like nothing more than a device to allow Eugenides his epic scope while also making room for a chummy, conversational tone. Cal is a patient and indulgent storyteller, constantly saying such things as “shall I get right to it?” and “so, to recap” and “surely you’ve guessed by now.”
Such asides are symptoms of the novel’s major problem: There’s something a little undignified about its relentless attempts to ingratiate itself. Eugenides tends to formally announce his themes and motifs, as if to spare us the effort of looking for them. (Cal on the subject of Berlin: “This once-divided city reminds me of myself.”) He splashes ellipses liberally to lubricate the suspense. He shows a weakness for cute visual metaphors: the movie reel, the snapshot, the diorama. And the book has more than its share of Lovely Images that seem calculated to provoke sighs of delight. (“It was the custom in those days for passengers leaving for America to bring balls of yarn on deck. Relatives on the pier held the loose ends. As the Giulia blew its horn and moved away from the dock, a few hundred strings of yarn stretched across the water.”)
The hyperactive plotting also suggests a pathological fear of flagging readerly interest. The sacking of Smyrna and the 1968 Detroit riots provide natural crisis points, and make for two of the book’s most charged and gripping sections. But calamity is never really far: The dominant mode here is melodrama, the dominant strategy plot contrivance. On the night Callie is born, a stroke hits her grandfather, but it’s not fatal – he has more strokes in store, conveniently timed for key moments in Callie’s life. Unlikely coincidences and flamboyant demises abound. We can’t even get through the performance of a school play without somebody dropping dead.
I’m all for (fictional) people dropping dead, and Lord knows The Virgin Suicides had a high body count. But with a story as long and busy as this one, a surplus of crises makes for diminishing returns. Middlesex is always readable and entertaining – for all his apparent insecurities, Eugenides is a natural storyteller – but most of its characters and events seem too arbitrary to really haunt the reader’s consciousness.
The pace does slow down a bit as Callie approaches puberty. Ensconced in a futuristic Grosse Pointe mansion on Middlesex Boulevard and enrolled in a private girls’ school, Callie frets about her body’s increasingly obvious strangeness and moons over a redheaded classmate, dubbed only The Obscure Object. A close attention to the minutiae of teenage life – a page-long description of a school bathroom, say – helps ground the action, and the affair with the Object is particularly well rendered, surreal yet plausible. There’s also a tart section in which Callie’s worried parents fall under the sway of Dr. Peter Luce, a hipster sexologist.
Callie’s resistance to Luce and her own dramatic gender switch form the core of the novel. She flees to San Francisco and takes a brief tour of the underground sex industry, but her adventures feel strangely truncated after her family’s long and winding story. In fact, Eugenides never really reconciles the whimsy and excess of the novel’s first half with the psychological realism he aims for in the second. It doesn’t help that after a tremendous build-up to Callie’s “coming out,” he skimps on describing its aftermath. A predictable subplot involving the adult Cal’s halting romance with an American photographer is sketched as thinly as possible.
Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate Eugenides’ talent. His writing can be sharp and funny. There are nice riffs in Middlesex on German compound words and on the horrific qualities of public men’s rooms. He can move a complicated story along economically. And his obvious affection for his characters (even as he refuses to indulge them) is charming. Middlesex may be underwhelming in the end, but as a diversionary yarn it’s more beguiling than most. At the very least it should inspire curiosity about what Eugenides will do next. I hope we won’t have to wait nearly 10 years to find out.