Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex

In 1993, novelist Jeffrey Eugenides published The Virgin Suicides, an unforgettable debut that found unexpected lyricism in the streets of a Michigan suburb and wove comedy and tragedy together from such unlikely material as the music of Bread. It was not, in short, the sort of freshman effort that should make anyone wait nearly a decade for its successor. Nothing short of a magnum opus, Eugenides' follow-up rewards the frustration. Middlesex is the story of a hermaphrodite. More specifically, it's the story of Callie, née Cal Stephanides, a 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodite. Raised as a girl, Callie discovers her sexual ambiguity as the result of a frustrated love affair with a classmate at an all-girls school, prompting an odyssey of self-discovery that encompasses two coasts, one clinic, a park full of homeless Deadheads, and a sex club. All of which occurs closer to the novel's final chapter than its first. "I'm the final clause in a periodic sentence, and that sentence begins a long time ago, in another language," Callie says early on. Eugenides then makes good on that claim, beginning Callie's story two generations earlier in the shadow of Mount Olympus, where an isolated brother and sister have begun to stray beyond the boundaries of familial propriety, just before a shift in the balance of power between the Turks and the Greeks necessitates their immigration to America. The story that follows encompasses everything from the ethnic strife of Asia Minor and the pillars of ancient Greece to the racial strife of downtown Detroit and the neo-classical architecture of that city's Grand Trunk railway station. Eugenides recounts the story of an immigrant family that eventually settles in Grosse Point, taking up residence in the semi-functional third-tier Prairie School home that gives the novel its title, and anticipates the biological dilemma of one of its inhabitants. The sweep of Middlesex is impressive, but not so much as Eugenides' ability to visualize history as a matrix of coincidences, unexpected repetitions, and poignant ironies. To choose one example of many: Only a few years off the boat, fleeing the burning of Smyrna and the persecution of the fez-wearing Turks, the narrator's grandmother revives her career as a silk farmer working for a new group of fez-wearing people, the nascent Nation Of Islam. Eugenides handles the grand scale well; his protagonist assumes a voice both biting and sad to narrate a family tree's worth of unexpected (and occasionally taboo) attempts at happiness, that happiness' eventual diminishment, and its repercussions. It comes almost as a disappointment when the focus narrows to the narrator's personal story, but the author's capacity for storytelling on an intimate scale hasn't suffered since Suicides. Callie/Cal's story has as much to do with the cultural and familial history leading up to it as the gender confusion it inspires. In the end, that story seems like the only resolution to the story that precedes it, as a century of religious, cultural, ideological, and sexual tension settles into a body which transforms constant conflict into an element of a greater harmony.

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