Jeffrey Eugenides's novel Middlesex (2002) focuses on the chronicle of forty-one-year-old, hermaphroditic Calliope Stephanides, which presents her multigenerational Greek-American family and her struggle to establish a clear sense of self. After opening with the story of her grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, and their subsequent union, Cal traces the damaged gene that this brother and sister passed down through the generations to Cal, which causes her gender irregularity.
Cal weaves together the story of her grandparents and their descendents with her own, comparing the problems they faced in their efforts to reconcile their Greek heritage with their adopted U.S. culture to Cal's attempts to find balance between her female and male halves. She sets her epic story, which moves from 1922 to 2001, against a historical backdrop of change, from the Turkish invasion of Greece, through Prohibition, the Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. As her family gradually adapts to their new world, Cal is also able to find a way to accept the duality of her own experience. Eugenides's ability to find the humor as well as the tragedy in their stories creates a compelling work that celebrates difference as well as community.
To avoid confusion, the narrator and main character in Middlesex is referred to here as "Cal" and the pronoun "she."
Jeffrey Eugenides was born in the affluent Detroit suburb, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to Constantine and Wanda Eugenides on March 8, 1960. Despite the family's Greek heritage, his parents wanted to assimilate mainstream American society. He was so influenced by the world of his childhood that his first two novels are set there. His Greek parents' assimilation serves as part of the backdrop for Middlesex (2002).
Eugenides attended and graduated from the prestigious University Liggett School, in Grosse Pointe. After high school, he attended Brown University, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1983. He continued his education at Stanford University where he received his master's degree in creative writing in 1986.
Until his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published in 1993, Eugenides worked at various jobs such as taking photos and writing for Yachtsman magazine, bussing tables in restaurants, and working as a newsletter editor at the American Academy of Poets in New York City. Eugenides also had some rather unusual jobs such as driving a cab in downtown Detroit and serving as a volunteer with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.
Eugenides won the Aga Khan Prize for fiction when he submitted an excerpt of The Virgin Suicides to the Paris Review in 1991. He completed the novel in 1993, and after its publication, it gained great critical acclaim and commercial success. In 2000, Sophia Coppola wrote the screenplay and directed the film version, which was also well received. Eugenides did not publish another novel for nine years. His second novel, Middlesex, won him the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Besides his two novels, Eugenides has also written for such publications as the New Yorker, Yale Review and Gettysburg Review. He has received the Writers' Award, Whiting Foundation; Henry D. Vursell Memorial Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters; fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; a Berlin Prize fellowship, American Academy in Berlin (2000–2001), and been made a fellow of the Berliner Kuenstlerprogramm of the DAAD. As of 2006, Eugenides lived in Berlin, Germany, with his wife, Karen, and their daughter.
To avoid confusion, the narrator and main character in Middlesex is referred to here as "Cal" and by the pronoun "she." The novel opens noting two birthdates, the first when Cal was born as a baby girl in Detroit in 1960 and the second when she was born again as a teenage boy in a hospital in Michigan in 1974. She notes that she was written up in a gender study in 1975 and discussed in a medical journal, and she gives a brief history of her life, listing her various jobs and experiences. The novel's title refers to the name of the street where she lives in Grosse Point, a suburb of Detroit, and it is also an allusion to her sexual location between the polarities of male and female and incorporating some traits of each.
Cal, who is now forty-one, says that she feels "another birth coming on." As a result, she has determined to write down the history of "the recessive mutation on [her] fifth chromosome" that "polluted" her family's genetic pool and eventually caused her to be born a hermaphrodite.
Cal notes that three months before she was born, her grandmother, Desdemona, tried to divine her gender by dangling a spoon over her mother's pregnant belly. She predicted a boy, which turns out was only half right. On the night Cal was born, her grandfather, Lefty, had the first of his thirteen strokes and lost the ability to speak.
Cal's narrative turns to the story of her grandparents' union, which begins in 1922 in Bithynios, a village on Mount Olympus in Asia Minor, later part of Greece. Twenty-one-year-old Desdemona lived there with her brother, Lefty. The two had always been close, but lately, he had been going into town looking for women. Desdemona tries to find a mate for him, but Lefty rejects them all. One night, in their village where "everyone was somehow related," the siblings admit and consummate their love for each other.
Cal shifts the narrative to the present when she lives in Berlin, working for the Foreign Service. She notes that she has "all the secondary sex characteristics of a normal man" except for her immunity to baldness. While she has lived as a man for half of her life, at times her feminine side emerges. She explains that she needs to go back to her grandparents' story to explain her own.
As the Turkish army advances, Lefty and Desdemona decide to immigrate to the United States, where their cousin Sourmelina lives. They set off for Smyrna where they hope to find a ship to carry them across the Atlantic. Desperate to get out before the Turkish troops arrive, they wait one week amid the chaos of the city's evacuation. A physician, Dr. Nishan Philobosian, treats a wound on Lefty's hand and gives him bread. As the Turks advance, they set fire to the city, forcing all of the residents to the wharf where Lefty convinces Desdemona to marry him. Posing as French citizens, they eventually gain entry on a ship bound for the United States. After Dr. Philobosian's family is brutally murdered by Turkish soldiers, Lefty claims he is his cousin and gains him passage as well.
Desdemona and Lefty pretend to meet and fall in love on the ship where they are soon married. Cal claims that they both carried a single mutated gene that they subsequently passed on to her. Lefty assures Desdemona that Sourmelina, called Lina, will keep quiet about their true identities because she has a secret as well: her lesbianism.
Desdemona and Lefty move in with Lina and her husband, Jimmy Zizmo, in Detroit, and Lefty takes a job with the Ford Motor Company. When the management discovers Jimmy's criminal record, Lefty is fired.
Desdemona and Lina become pregnant with Cal's parents, and Lefty starts to work with Jimmy smuggling alcohol from Canada. Desdemona is convinced that the intermarriage will cause their child to be deformed. One night as they cross the lake into Canada, Jimmy accuses Lefty of having an affair with Lina. In a jealous rage, Jimmy races the car across the lake and cracks through the ice just after Lefty jumps clear. Desdemona gives birth to Milton, Cal's father, soon after Tessie, Cal's mother, is born to Lina. Everyone assumes that Jimmy has drowned in the river.
After Milton's baptism, Desdemona determines never to have any more children so her "sin" will not be passed on. Lefty opens an illegal bar, the Zebra Room, where he spends most of his time. A few years later, Desdemona gives birth to Zoë, Cal's Aunt Zo, and Lina and Tessie move out.
Desdemona gets a job during the Depression making silk clothing for the Nation of Islam in Detroit's Black Bottom ghetto. She discovers that Prophet Fard, who is credited with forming the Nation, is really Jimmy Zizmo. He is soon arrested for conducting illegal activities using the Nation as a cover. After he is released, he disappears and is never seen again. Lefty begins a lucrative business selling suggestive pictures of women lounging in cars. Determined not to pass on her sin to a child, Desdemona gets sterilized.
- In 2002, Audio Renaissance produced an audio version of the novel, read by Kristoffer Tabori. As of 2006, no film version had been made.
In the present time, Cal goes out on a date with Julie Kikuchi, an Asian-American woman Cal met in Berlin. In 1944, Germany is engaged in World War II. Milton serenades Tessie out his back window. Desdemona has been trying to fix him up with a Greek girl, not wanting any more intermarrying in the family. Milton, however, is in love with Tessie. Sometimes when they are alone together in the house, she lets him play his clarinet on her body.
Inexplicably, Tessie soon becomes engaged to Michael Antoniou, who is a seminarian at the Greek Orthodox church they attend. Milton is so upset at the news that he enlists in the navy. Stationed in San Diego, Milton begins to realize the dangers he will face when he is shipped overseas. Back in Detroit, Tessie thinks she sees him in a newsreel and immediately breaks off her engagement to Father Mike and determines to marry Milton. After receiving a ninety-eight on an application to the Naval Academy, Milton is immediately transferred to Annapolis. Within a year, he and Tessie marry.
By 1950, Aunt Zo has married Father Mike and Malcolm X has taken over the Nation of Islam. Whites start moving out of Detroit to the suburbs and the business in Lefty's bar drops off. When Milton comes home from the academy, he remodels the bar into a successful diner. With a lot of time on his hands, Lefty begins to gamble and soon loses all of his retirement savings. As a result, he and Desdemona have to move in with Milton, Tessie, and their son, whom Cal calls Chapter Eleven.
Dr. Philobosian delivers Cal, but because he is distracted by his nurse, he does not closely examine Cal's genitalia. Subsequently, he pronounces her a healthy girl. When Cal urinates like a fountain on Father Mike during her baptism, "no one wondered about the engineering involved." Cal explains that she had no doubts she was a girl as she was growing up. Dr. Phil, who has faulty eyesight, never saw anything out of the ordinary during Cal's yearly examinations. Milton's diner begins to lose business as the neighborhood deteriorates. By the 1960s, it is worth less than when Lefty bought the bar in 1933.
In the present, Cal takes Julie away for the weekend to the sea. When she sees nudists on the beach, Cal complains, "What is it like to feel free like that? I mean, my body is so much better than theirs." In 1967, the diner is failing as racial tension increases in Detroit. One night after the police start making arrests in a local strip club, bottles and stones are thrown, and the Detroit race riots begin. Milton holes up in his diner for three days, trying to protect it from looters. Eventually, though, it is burned down. After Milton cashes in the insurance money, they are able to move out to Grosse Point, a small, elite Detroit suburb.
There Cal makes her first friend, Clementine Stark, who teaches her the right way to kiss. Cal admits, "there was something improper about theway I felt about Clementine." When her grandfather has another stroke while she and Clementine are playing naked in the bathhouse, Cal blames herself, thinking that she shocked him. The stroke affects Lefty's memory. Soon after, when Lefty dies, Desdemona takes to her bed where she spends the next ten years.
In the present, Cal and Julie end their weekend together. Cal thinks of the "very real possibility of shock, horror, withdrawal, rebuff. The usual reactions" and so decides to stop seeing her. Back in the past, Milton opens a successful chain of hot dog stands. After Detroit begins a busing program, Milton sends Cal to a private girls' school. She feels like an outcast there, especially when her features turn more ethnic, and she does not begin to develop as the other girls do.
When Chapter Eleven waits nervously for his number to be picked in the Vietnam War draft lottery, he and Cal grow closer. His high number ensures that he will escape the draft, and so he goes east to college. When he comes home for a visit with his girlfriend, he and Milton get into a nasty argument about his anti-war, anti-establishment views, and Chapter Eleven storms out.
Cal falls in love with the Object of Desire, one of the Charm Bracelets, the popular clique at school. During this time, Cal feels sexual urges and changes in her genitalia. She plays Tiresias in her school's production of Antigone, and Object plays Antigone. The two become friends as they rehearse, away from the pressures of school. During the opening performance, one of the girls has an aneurism and dies. Cal comforts Object, which is observed by Tessie.
That summer Cal spends every day with the Object at her swim club, and the latter declares that the two are best friends. Cal is despondent over an upcoming trip to Greece with her family, but it gets canceled after the Turks invade the country. After Milton renounces his heritage in response to the U.S. government's support of the invasion, the relatives stop coming over for their Sunday visits.
Cal is invited to the Object's summer home. One night Cal, the Object, the Object's brother Jerome, and a male friend of the Object's go to a cabin in the woods where they drink and smoke marijuana. As she watches the Object and her friend kissing, the inebriated Cal mentally slips into his body. Cal admits "how right it felt" to imagine herself caressing the Object. Jerome begins to have sex with Cal, which she allows. For the first time, she understands that she is not "a girl but something in between" and is sure that Jerome realizes it, too. Jerome, however, "hadn't noticed a thing."
The next morning, the Object calls Cal "a total slut." When Jerome tries to have sex with her again, Cal stops him, insisting that she does not like him "like that." The rest of the day the Object avoids Cal. During the night, Cal slowly begins to caress the Object as they lay together in her bed. This develops into a nightly pattern. One afternoon, Jerome catches them caressing each other on the porch swing and calls them "carpet munchers," a derogatory term for a lesbian. In response, Cal tackles Jerome and spits on him. Enraged, Jerome chases her. She runs head first into a tractor and is taken to the emergency room. The doctor who examines her tells her parents to take her to New York City to see a specialist. Cal finally confronts the fact that she "was no longer a girl like other girls."
Dr. Luce conducts medical and psychological exams to determine Cal's sexuality. Cal lies on some parts of the psychological exam when he asks about her attraction to boys and girls. After two weeks of tests, Dr. Luce calls Cal's anguished parents in for a consultation while Cal waits in the library. He diagnoses her as "a girl who has a little too much male hormone" and tells them, "we want to correct that" through hormone therapy and cosmetic surgery. He also tells them that Cal can never have children. Although the last news upsets Tessie, she and Milton are relieved that "no one would ever know" about Cal's condition.
While in the library, Cal finds under the definition of "hermaphrodite" the synonym "MONSTER" and decides that is what she must be. Later, her parents tell her Dr. Luce's conclusions and assure her that her situation is "no big deal." She understands that her parents want her to remain a girl.
While waiting for Dr. Luce in his office, she reads her file, which shows that the doctor's assessment is based in part on his assumption that she is sexually attracted to boys. That conclusion, along with the possibility that the cosmetic surgery will prevent her from experiencing sexual pleasure, prompts Cal to write her parents a note declaring "I am not a girl. I'm a boy" and to run away.
Before she heads west, Cal gets her hair cut and tries to adopt more masculine mannerisms. She is not sure what to do next. Lonely and scared, she starts hitchhiking and eventually is picked up by a man who tries to seduce her. Later, Bob Presto, the owner of a strip club, picks her up and suggests that she go to San Francisco. He asks if she is gay or a transvestite and then insists that she call him if she gets in trouble. Back in Detroit, Milton and Tessie are despondent. Milton posts pictures of Cal in local stores and in his hotdog restaurants as the family gathers around. Tessie grows increasingly depressed.
Chapter Eleven comes home and joins Milton in the hot dog business. Cal arrives in San Francisco where she makes friends with other homeless teenagers. One night, while guarding their camp site in the park, two homeless people steal her money. After stripping her, they call her a freak and beat her up…. With nowhere else to turn, she calls Bob Presto.
Cal takes a job in his sex club where she works in a water tank as Hermaphrodites. She meets Zora Khyber there, another hermaphrodite who performs with her. Zora, who has done extensive research on hermaphrodites, talks to Cal about their gender issues, making Cal feel "less alone in the world." After the police raid the club, Cal calls Chapter Eleven, who says Milton has just been killed in an accident.
In the present, Cal attends an art opening and sees Julie. Cal tells her about herself, and the two go back to Cal's apartment. Back in Detroit, Cal learns about Milton's death. Milton had gotten a phone call from a man who insisted that he had kidnapped Cal and who demanded money for her release. Milton arrived at a train station where he dropped money they had agreed upon as ransom. After he saw Father Mike pick up the money, he chased him to the Canadian border. On the bridge to Canada, Milton died in a car crash.
Father Mike, who confessed that he was trying to get back at Milton for stealing Tessie from him, was sent to jail. Cal jumps ahead into the future and notes that Chapter Eleven ruins his father's business, and Aunt Zo, Desdemona, and Tessie move to Florida.
After Cal comes home for Milton's traditional Greek funeral, the family gradually adjusts to Cal as a male. Desdemona admits that Lefty was her brother and blames herself for Cal's situation. Cal tells her that Cal likes his life and that he is okay. The novel ends with Cal at the door, happy to be home, and "thinking about what was next."
Father Mike, assistant priest at the Greek Orthodox church the family attends, married Zoë, Milton's sister, after Tessie broke off her engagement with him. He is sweet-natured before he marries Zoë, but her constant nagging about how successful her brother is compared to him wears him down and turns him bitter. In a desperate attempt to get enough money to leave Zoë and to get even with Milton for his success in business and in marriage, Father Mike tries to blackmail him.
Chapter Eleven is the only name that Cal gives to her older brother. As a child, he likes to shoot, hammer, and smash things. He becomes geeky and nerdy as a teenager but turns into a "John Lennon look-alike" at college where he adopts anti-war and anti-establishment views. He ignores Cal for most of her life since they are far apart in age, but the two become closer when Chapter Eleven faces the Vietnam draft. He ultimately shows his loyalty when he rescues Cal from jail in California. His lack of business sense, however, causes him to ruin his father's hot dog franchise.
Jerome, the Object's brother, is the first boy with whom Cal has sex. He seems to want to have a relationship with Cal, but after Cal rebuffs him, he turns on her and his sister with cruel epithets when he catches them together.
Zora Khyber, a hermaphrodite that works at the sex club, is sympathetic to Cal's gender confusion and so spends a lot of time sharing her extensive research with her. She has a marked violent streak, however, that frightens Cal.
Cal's relationship with Julie Kikuchi, a thirty-six-year-old Asian-American living in Berlin, appears in brief glimpses throughout the text. She is straightforward, asking Cal as soon as she meets her if she is gay. Julie's open-mindedness is evident when she is willing to begin a relationship with Cal after Cal admits that she is a hermaphrodite.
Dr. Luce diagnoses Cal in New York and writes up her case and publishes it. Although he is considered the world's leading authority on hermaphroditism, he misdiagnoses the causes of the condition. Extremely confident in his medical theories, the "brilliant, charming, work-obsessed" Luce, nevertheless "prayed," Cal assumes, that she "would never show up to refute them."
Object of Desire
Cal names the Object of Desire after a famous European film. The Object is part of the popular clique in Cal's private school, whose members ordinarily shun ethnic girls like Cal. But the Object's loneliness, caused by parents who pay little attention to her, encourages her to begin a friendship with Cal that eventually turns sexual. The Object gives into her feelings for Cal but expresses her insecurities and frustration about her lesbian tendencies when she declares, "You understand everything I say…. Why can't you be a guy?"
Bob Presto runs the sex club where Cal works. He appears to be sympathetic and kind-hearted when he rescues Cal after she is beaten up by the homeless men, but his ultimate goal is financial.
Clementine, Cal's first friend in Grosse Point, teaches her how to kiss properly and causes Cal's first feelings of gender confusion.
Calliope, who changes her name to Cal when she assumes a male identity, is the narrator of the story. She claims that she has a male brain but was assumed to be female at birth. Cal establishes a connection between herself and her family when she admits, "my grandparents had fled their home because of a war. Now, some fifty-two years later, I was fleeing myself." She joins the foreign service because she cannot have children and because she does not want to stay in one place for too long, fearing that her gender will be discovered.
Cal insists that from the beginning of her life she had "the ability to communicate between the genders, to see not with the monovision of one sex but in the stereoscope of both." Yet her hermaphroditism causes her great shame. As a result, she admits, "when I meet someone I like and who seems to like me, I retreat." Her humor helps her cope with her loneliness and enables her to take an honest look at her situation. By the end of the novel, she gains the courage, through a careful examination of the connection between her experiences and those of her family, to open herself up to a relationship with Julie.
Cal's grandmother, Desdemona, is "perfectly designed for blocking people's paths" as she tries to maintain her family's ties to the old world. She reveals a sense of the dramatic whenever she is crossed by fanning herself with her "six atrocity fans" that list crimes committed against Greece. Cal notes: "the ominous, storm-gathering quality" of her fanning becomes "her secret weapon" in this battle.
Cal notes the difference between Desdemona and her cousin: "in the course of her life Sourmelina had become an American. Almost nothing of the village remained in her. Her self-entombed cousin, on the other hand, had never left it." Desdemona is superstitious, believing that her marriage to her brother dooms the family. As a result, she is consumed by guilt, which causes her to withdraw from her husband and eventually the world. When Desdemona spends the last ten years of her life in bed after Lefty dies, Cal calls her "a sick person imprisoned in a healthy body."
Eleutherios, or Lefty as he was known, is Cal's grandfather and Desdemona's husband. His nonconformist nature becomes evident when he frequents gambling and prostitution houses in Greece and convinces his sister to marry him. After he gambles away his money, he and Desdemona live in the attic of Cal's house; he spends his mornings translating Greek poems, while at night he smokes hash in a hookah. Cal develops a close relationship with her "Chaplinesque papou," with his elegant clothes and playful nature.
Milton is Cal's father and Desdemona's son. He possesses "a flinty self-confidence that protected him like a shell from the world's assaults." Of the family members, he assimilates most successfully: he learns American jazz and business sense. He distances himself further from his homeland when he adopts right-wing politics, identifies with Nixon, and supports the United States so much that he denounces his Greek heritage. His obsession with the American dream distances him from his family as he becomes more preoccupied with his business worries. Cal notes "he began to leave a little more of himself at the diner each day" until he "wasn't really there at all."
Sourmelina, called Lina, is Desdemona's and Lefty's cousin. Her parents send her to the United States when they discover that she is a lesbian. She successfully assimilates American culture yet retains some ties to her heritage. When she thinks her husband, Jimmy, is dead, she grieves in the Greek style.
Tessie Stephanides, born Tessie Zizmo, is Cal's mother. Milton is attracted to her "all-American looks." She is quiet and, like Cal, enjoys watching people. After building her world around her family, she starts to feel useless when Chapter Eleven goes off to college and Cal matures. After Cal leaves, Tessie becomes depressed because her intense motherly devotion is frustrated. That same devotion, however, causes her to accept Cal's sex change from female to male, from a daughter to a son.
Zoë Stephanides, called Aunt Zo, is Desdemona's and Lefty's daughter, and Cal's aunt. She marries Father Mike by default when Tessie breaks off her engagement with him. Characterized by her good sense of humor and loud talk, she is uncomfortable with the prospect of being a role model as Father Mike's wife. Her jealousy over her brother's good fortune and Mike's obvious affection for Tessie turns Aunt Zo into a nag who constantly berates Mike for his shortcomings. She "never missed a chance to lament her marriage" to him.
Jimmy, who is of unknown ethnic origin, is married to Lina. He is an ex-con, drug dealer, and scam artist whose adaptability becomes evident when he turns quickly from rum-running to proselytizing as the head prophet of the Nation of Islam in Detroit.
Fate and Free Will
Cal questions the primacy of fate over free will as she examines her and her family's experiences. She begins with the silk worm analogy, tracing the thread to the past that has determined her hermaphroditism. "The thread," she insists, "began on a day two hundred and fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby's fifth chromosome…. and my destiny fell into place."
James Wood, in his review of the novel for the New Republic, comments that "Eugenides wishes to use his three-generational structure to suggest something about fate, the bequeathments of genetics, and the possibility of revolt once fate has displayed its cards." Eugenides refuses to privilege one force over the other, insisting that both can affect human experience. Wood concludes, "the book clearly turns on this idea of destiny, and of destiny resisted, both by free will and by helpless action." While, for example, the damaged gene passed on by Desdemona and Lefty has left a clear mark on Cal, her grandparents had the freedom to choose to come to the United States, just as Cal chooses whether she will live as a man or a woman.
The tension between fate and free will also are evident in Cal's contradictory statements on the two forces. She claims at one point that tragedy "is something determined before you're born, something you can't escape or do anything about, no matter how hard you try." Yet by the end of the novel, she admits, "free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind."
Coming of Age
One important focus in the novel is Cal's coming of age, a process that is complicated by her genetic irregularities. Initially, her maturation follows a familiar path. Her girlhood beauty makes her feel accepted by her peers. However, her lack of development during puberty makes her worry "about being left behind, left out," which in turn makes her feel "gypped" and "cheated." Her status as outsider is reinforced by her ethnicity.
Her growing awareness of her difference and her attraction to girls makes her feel even more ostracized from her peers. She is able to hide her sexual yearnings to a degree in a private girls' school where "school rituals reinforced an intimate atmosphere." But outside the classroom, her peers focus exclusively on boys. Cal admits that her "school remained militantly heterosexual." Her acknowledgement of her difference produces overwhelming bouts of shame. Yet, she is strong enough to reject Dr. Luce's determination to make her more what might be called normal.
Topics For Further Study
- Prepare a genealogical chart that traces your family's history as far back as you can. Interview relatives about personality or physical traits that were passed down through the generations. Add these bits of information to your chart.
- Read The Virgin Suicides and compare its coming-of-age theme with that of Middlesex in an essay.
- Conduct some research on hermaphrodites, reading if possible some firsthand reports by hermaphrodites. Make a presentation to your class on your findings and lead a discussion on how realistic Cal's experiences are as a hermaphrodite.
- Identify a place that you would like to visit and imagine living there for one year. Do some research on the place. Then write a short story or narrative about the experiences you imagine having while trying to adapt to a foreign culture.
The several mythological allusions in the novel reinforce Cal's sense of her Greek heritage and become important symbolically. Calliope, the goddess of epic poetry, is an appropriate name for the narrator as she tells her and her family's own epic story. In the opening pages, Cal plays Tiresias in her school's production of Antigone. She notes the similarities between the two, insisting that like him, she "was first one thing and then the other." The blind prophet Tiresias, who had lived as both a woman and a man, also becomes symbolic of Cal as a seer. Eugenides adds a touch of irony in this allusion, which correlates Tiresias, who can see into the future, with Cal, who can see into the past.
Cal also adopts a comic Homeric tone in the novel, characterized by its elevated, dramatic style of speech typical of epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey. This tone reflects her Greek heritage as well as her gently comic view of her family and its history. As she begins her story, she sets this tone when she writes, "Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped."
Self-reflexivity is a term applied to texts that call attention to the creative process. At different points in the novel, Cal notes that she is fabricating some of her memories or altering them for literary purposes. One such example occurs in her description of her grandfather and Jimmy Zizmo driving past an amusement park. Cal admits that the park should be closed at 3 a.m., but she claims, "for my own purposes, tonight Electric Park is open all night, and the fog suddenly lifts, all so that my grandfather can look out the window and see a roller coaster streaking down the track." This is, she suggests, "a moment of cheap symbolism only." To be truthful, however, she must "bow to the strict rules of realism, which is to say: they can't see a thing." In this fabricated moment, Cal suggests that her story moves between fiction and reality, calling readers' attention to one of her main points in the novel: the difficulty in determining what is real and what is a fictional construct in people's assessment of who they are.
World War II in the Pacific
Two incidents in 1940 exacerbated the tension between the United States and Japan that resulted in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war against Japan. Japan invaded Indochina and signed the Tripartite Pact, which created an alliance between Japan, Germany, and Italy against Great Britain and France. As a result, the U.S. government drastically increased economic sanctions by withholding oil and freezing all Japanese assets. In retaliation, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered the war.
The United States battled Japan on the sea (most notably at Midway in 1942) and on Japanese-held islands and through a bombing campaign on the Japanese mainland. In 1942, Japan's forces occupied much of the southeastern Pacific: the Philippine Islands, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Also in 1942, the Americans launched their counterattack. The Coral Sea naval battle prevented the Japanese from gaining access to Australia and the U.S. Marines regained Guadalcanal.
U.S. forces took control of the Solomon Islands in 1943 and New Guinea in 1944. They advanced on Japanese-held island groups: the Philippines, the Marianas Islands, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima. After protracted fighting, the Allies took Birmania in October of 1944, Manila and Iwo Jima in March of 1945, and Okinawa in June of 1945. Japan resisted, however, until 1945. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year, Japan accepted the terms of an unconditional surrender: the dissolution of the Japanese Empire and the release of all seized territories.
The Vietnam War was fought in South Vietnam and surrounding areas between U.S. forces and insurgents supported by North Vietnam. The war started in 1954 soon after the provisions of the Geneva Conference divided Vietnam into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North) and the Republic of Vietnam (South). Conflict initially broke out as a civil war between the North and the South but escalated as the United States threw its support to the South, initially by sending money and advisors and later by sending troops.
After the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed in August of 1964, the United States increased its military aid to South Vietnam. By the end of that decade, there were 550,000 U.S. troops involved in the conflict. North Vietnam gained armaments and technical support from the Soviet Union and other communist countries. Despite massive bombing attacks, the United States and South Vietnam failed to push back the insurgency.
Progress was made with peace talks after President Johnson decided not to seek reelection in 1968. After his election that year, President Nixon began troop withdrawals along with intensified bombing campaigns. In 1970, Nixon ordered the invasion of communist strongholds in Cambodia.
Public opinion in the United States turned against the war as the number of casualties grew and reports of war crimes such as the massacre at My Lai surfaced. Huge demonstrations took place in Washington D.C., as well as in other cities and on college campuses. A peace agreement was finally reached in January of 1973, but fighting between the North and the South did not abate. On April 30, 1975, the South Vietnamese president Duong Van Minh surrendered to the communists. Saigon fell as the last U.S. troops left the country. More than 50,000 U.S. soldiers died in the conflict along with approximately 400,000 South Vietnamese and over 900,000 North Vietnamese.
Cal includes details about these two wars to reveal the historical and cultural context of her family's saga. Two members of her family, her father, Milton, and her brother, Chapter Eleven, must face the prospect of serving in these wars since they are American citizens. Fortunately for them and for the rest of the family, neither is sent overseas.
Reviews for the novel have been decidedly positive. Many critics praise Eugenides's characterization of Cal. Max Watman, in New Criterion, writes that in this "first-rate" novel, "Eugenides normalizes the experience of a hermaphrodite and turns Cal into something other than a freak." James Wood, in the New Republic agrees, insisting, "Eugenides makes Calliope credible: she is not merely a theme." Joanne Wilkinson, in her review for Booklist, concludes that Eugenides "proves himself to be a wildly imaginative writer" and finds "perhaps what is most surprising about [his] offbeat but engrossing book is how he establishes, seemingly effortlessly, the credibility of his narrator." He is, she claims, "likely to hold readers in thrall" with "a sure yet light-handed touch" in his "affecting characterization of a brave and lonely soul and [his] vivid depiction of exactly what it means to be both male and female." In her review of the novel in the Library Journal, Rachel Collins concurs: "The author's eloquent writing captures the essence of Cal."
Praising the tone and style of the novel, Collins argues, "his confidence in the story, combined with his sure prose, helps readers overcome their initial surprise and focus on the emotional revelation of the characters and beyond." She concludes, "Eugenides proves that he is not only a unique voice in modern literature but also well versed in the nature of the human heart." A review in Publishers Weekly echoes Collins's claims, declaring the novel "beautifully written" with an "extraordinary sensitivity to the mores of our leafier suburbs" as it "effortlessly transcend[s] the stereotypes of gender."
Some readers, however, have found fault with the narrative. Wilkinson insists that "at times the novel reads like a medical text." Wood writes that the "novel is blemished by elements of didacticism and prolixity, and [Eugenides] is not without the postmodern urge to turn clouds of suggestion into storms of fact." He also criticizes Eugenides tendency to "[remind] us just how neatly he has planted everything."
Yet Wood finds much also to praise in the novel's voice and tone: "[the novel] is an often affecting, funny, and deeply human book. For all its scope and its size, for all the data that crowds this novel, Eugenides seems a charmingly ingenuous writer." Woods praises the "verve" and the "exactness" of the author's storytelling skills and his "simple confidence in his Greek material that disarms his vices." Wood concludes, "The result is … a descriptive immediacy, vividly comic, often precisely realistic, but with that tilt of the real the narrative needs." Ultimately, "Eugenides's charm, his life-jammed comedy, rescues the novel from its occasional didacticism." Wood adds, "Paradoxically, Eugenides's boldness, his decision to risk an emblem as obvious as a hermaphrodite narrator … is what steers the novel away, finally, from the temptation of editorial writing."
Wood reserves his highest praise for Eugenides's dual narrative structure, claiming that he has "accomplished one of the most difficult novelistic tricks" by combining "an adult voice using the full resources of the language and the proper prestiges of adulthood" with "a child's voice, representing an excited, receptive, and bolting response to the world." He concludes, "In our day, this achievement of a mature uncorruptedness represents something of a triumph."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines the tensions between integration and displacement in the novel.
Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex presents two narrative plot lines: the three-generational epic story of the Greek-American Stephanides family and a poignant coming-of-age tale of one member of that family. Cal's controlling voice integrates the two storylines that wind through the novel like Des-demona's silk threads, forming an intricate thematic fabric that illustrates the tensions between integration and displacement. As Cal recounts her family's struggle to establish a clear sense of themselves in their new world, she eventually comes to a cautious recognition and acceptance of her own uniqueness as well as her connection to the human community.
In the beginning of the book, Cal immediately identifies herself as a hermaphrodite, noting that she has lived first as a girl and then as a boy. She explains, "After I started living as a male, my mother and I moved away from Michigan and I've been moving ever since." Berlin, formerly a divided city, is an appropriate local for Cal at the point when she is "hopeful" that she will be able to unite the two halves of herself.
In an effort to establish a more stable or cohesive sense of identity, Cal explores her genetic link to her family back through three generations to her Greek grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty. As she chronicles the tension they and their de-scendents' faced between their Greek heritage and the culture of their adopted country, the United States, Cal integrates her own story of a divided self and explores the struggle they all endured in their efforts to establish a measure of balance and wholeness.
After their immigration, Lefty and Desdemona respond to the United States in opposite ways: Desdemona fights against assimilation while Lefty embraces it. Desdemona's devotion to her ethnicity becomes immediately evident as she passes through Ellis Island. After her "immigrant braids" are cut off, she vows to regrow them, insisting that she does not "want to look like an Amerikanidha." For the rest of her life, she retains as much of her heritage as she can, while Lefty integrates American society.
Lefty quickly learns English while working at the Ford Motor Company and becomes an apt pupil as Jimmy teaches him how to be financially successful in his new world. Jimmy's wife, Lina, Lefty's and Desdemona's cousin, becomes a model of assimilation. Cal explains, "In the five years since leaving Turkey, Sourmelina had managed to erase just about everything identifiably Greek about her."
Lefty advances his adoption of a new identity through his role as an American business owner and supporter of equal rights, which becomes evident when a customer makes a racist slur in Lefty's bar and Lefty refuses to serve him. After the customer tells him to go back to his own country, Lefty insists, "This is my country" and pulls out a gun, which, Cal notes, is "a very American thing" to do. Lefty's and Desdemona's divergent responses to the United States, however, create tension and distance between them.
They both try to promote their own points of view in their children. Desdemona, however, has little success at trying to prevent her children from becoming Americanized. Zoë adopts the loudness of Americans while Milton inherits his father's capitalistic business acumen. Desdemona grimly recognizes how far her family is removed from its heritage when she mistakenly predicts Cal's sex while Milton, using more progressive methods, gets it right: "Her American-born son had been proven right and, with this fresh defeat, the old country, in which she still tried to live despite its being four thousand miles and thirty-eight years away, receded one more notch."
When the family moves out of the city where they enjoyed the company of other Greek immigrants into a mostly WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) suburb of Detroit, they experience both an increased pressure to assimilate and a sense of their own ethnicity. Cal notes this tension when she writes, "Everything about Middlesex [their street] spoke of forgetting and everything about Desdemona made plain the inescapability of remembering."
As he adapts to his Grosse Point neighborhood, Milton expresses strong support for the Republican agenda, becoming so Americanized that he denounces his heritage when the U.S. government backs the Turkish invasion of Greece. Cal explains, "Forced to choose between his native land and his ancestral one, he didn't hesitate." This response alienates his family and friends who stop coming over for Sunday visits.
Cal's family, however, eventually comes to a degree of balance between the old and new. Milton, the staunch Republican, who decries the anti-establishment activities of his son, displays his connections to both worlds in his Hercules hot dog stands. Lefty decorates his diner with American and Greek iconic figures: Mickey Mouse and Paul Bunyan are posed next to Zeus and Aphrodite. Even Desdemona allows a certain duality. As Cal notes her grandmother's addiction to American soap operas, she explains, "Though she had lived in America as an eternal exile, a visitor for forty years, certain bits of her adopted country had been seeping under the locked doors of her disapproval." In a final note of ironic balance, Cal concedes that Desdemona's hair was used for one of Betty Ford's wigs.
When Cal discovers that she is a hermaphrodite, she also finds herself caught between two worlds. Her position, however, is more complex and disturbing. While her family members were never able to resolve all of the tensions involved in the assimilation process, they enjoy a sense of community with their relatives and other Greek immigrants. Cal's relatively unique situation offers her no such opportunities for commiseration or support.
She experiences the same feelings of ethnic displacement, especially after her father sends her to a private girls' school. Prior to their admittance to the school, she and her friends "had always felt completely American. But now the Bracelets' upturned noses suggested that there was another America to which we could never gain admittance." This ostracism, however, cannot compare to the complete sense of isolation Cal experiences as she confronts the realities of her genetic nature. When she discovers that she is a hermaphrodite, she becomes convinced that she fits the definition she finds in the dictionary—"MONSTER"—and the homeless men's epithet—"freak." Even the counterculture or the beaches of San Francisco could not offer solace, since, as she explains, "Nature brought no relief…. There was nowhere to go that wouldn't be me."
Cal begins to feel "less alone in the world" through her friendship with Zora who insists that "the original person was two halves, one male, one female. Then these got separated." She and Cal, she argues, should be content since they do not need to search "for their other half." They have "both halves already."
When she returns for Milton's funeral, Cal is also able to gain a measure of acceptance from her family who discovers "gender was not all that important." Cal eventually comes to the realization that she has learned to strike a balance between her two selves since, as she notes, "Even now, though I live as a man, I remain in essential ways Tessie's daughter." In the final scene, she establishes a connection with her family through her recognition of their and her own duality. As she stands in the doorway of the house on Middlesex, she describes her "Byzantine face, which was the face of [her] grandfather and of the American girl [she] had once been."
During the process of recounting the story of her family and herself to Julie, Cal is able to recognize her uniqueness as well as the universality of her experience. This understanding allows her to trust Julie and thus open herself to the possibility that she can now stop running from herself and establish a "last stop," finally able to accept her difference as well as her connection to her world.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Middlesex, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following review, Wood praises Eu-genides's talent at "conjuring" an adult voice, with all its language and resource, that is simultaneously that of a child's "excited, receptive, and bolting response to the world."
What Do I Read Next?
- The Virgin Suicides (1993), Eugenides's first novel, chronicles the lives of five teenaged sisters living in suburban Detroit who all commit suicide.
- Augusten Burroughs, in his autobiographical Running with Scissors (2002), traces his harrowing childhood and his growing awareness of his homosexuality with an adept comic touch.
- The narrator in Jonathan Franzen's bestselling novel, The Corrections, published in 2001, explores the lives of his offbeat family members as he tells of his struggle to make peace with them.
- J. D. Salinger's classic coming-of-age story, Catcher in the Rye (1951), is narrated by Holden Caulfield, who tells the cynical but compelling story of a particular weekend in New York during his troubled teenaged years.
In his memoir The Noise of Time, Mandelstam recalls a haughty friend who used to say, disdainfully, that "some men are books, others—newspapers." The remark might be adapted. Some books are books, others—newspapers. In recent years, the large American novel has frequently aspired to the condition of journalism. The great quarry of the last decade, and sometimes the great cemetery, has been the social novel, the vast report on the way we live now, the stuffed dossier, the thriving broadsheet streaming with contemporary brightnesses. Tom Wolfe's barely literate plea for more of just this kind of fiction has always seemed nonsensical in the age of Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, and most recently Jonathan Franzen. We have too much socially and politically obsessed fiction, not too little. Mimesis deserves a holiday. The bright book of life need not include all of life.
Jeffrey Eugenides's second novel seems, at first glance, a victim of this journalistic ambition to cover the twentieth-century American news. It is about three generations of a Greek-American family, and it moves from 1922 to the 1970s. We pass, as you would expect, through Prohibition, the Depression, World War 11, and the civil rights movement, and we end with the OPEC oil crisis. There is even an opportunistic "update," in which the narrator glancingly mentions September 11, as if the failure to include that catastrophe would make the novel untimely or in some way obsolete.
In addition to this reportorial urge, Middlesex is a child of its moment in its occasional recourse to those excitements, patternings, and implausibilities that lie on the soft side of magical realism and should be called hysterical realism: two cousins conceive their children on the same night and at the same moment, and these two children later marry each other; a character is named Chapter Eleven and seems never to have been given any other name; the Greek lady who flees Smyrna in 1922 later retires to Smyrna Beach, Florida; the novel's hermaphrodite narrator, Calliope Stephanides, who is born a girl but later decides to be a boy (hence "middlesex"), conveniently moves to a house on Middlesex Street, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in the 1960s, and conveniently narrates his story from present-day Berlin, formerly a city of two halves or sexes (which, of course, he remarks upon)—and so on.
It seems hard to convince contemporary novelists that true aesthetic patterning has little to do with such gunning symmetries, but is more akin to the ghostlier ideal of musical motif and repetition. Still, these deformities notwithstanding, Middlesex is certainly a novel and not a newspaper; and it is an often affecting, funny, and deeply human book. For all its scope and its size, for all the data that crowds this novel, Eugenides seems a charmingly ingenuous writer. A comparison might be made with that other big American novel, The Corrections. Despite his considerable powers as a dramatist, Franzen rarely leaves himself at the door. He is an intensely knowing novelist, and his many essaylets and op-ed riffs are written in a high-journalistic prose, and clearly by Franzen himself; they could be broken off the main stem of the book and crumbled into The New Yorker without much amendment. Eugenides, too, enjoys his authorial jags, and some are better than others, but he generally avoids knowingness. His prosy riffs are his narrator's, and they belong jealously to his novel. They are more likable than Franzen's, if less obviously smart. Above all, they partake of his narrator's curious innocence.
This is a way of saying that Eugenides at his best is a storyteller. Innocence in storytelling is a kind of learned cognitive naïveté, whereby the writer seems to discover each new detail synchronously with the reader. The narrator's revelation poses as self-revelation. This talent, actually very rare in contemporary novelists, is inseparable from a quality of epistemological delight, a joy in knowing. (Knowingness, by contrast, is joyless.) On the third page of the novel, the narrator's brother is sent upstairs to the attic where his grandparents live in the family home. The attic of Desdemona and "Lefty" Stephanides, grandparents of Chapter Eleven and Calliope Stephanides, is a curious one, stuffed as it is with they physical reminders of the old Greek world they left behind in 1922. But the reader does not know this yet. And so he must follow the novelist:
In sneakers he passed beneath the twelve, damply newspapered birdcages suspended from the rafters. With a brave face he immersed himself in the sour odor of the parakeets, and in my grandparents' own particular aroma, a mixture of mothballs and hashish. He negotiated his way past my grandfather's book-piled desk and his collection of rebetika records. Finally, bumping into the leather ottoman and the circular coffee table made of brass, he found my grandparents' bed and, under it, the silkworm box. Carved from olivewood, a little bigger than a shoe box, it had a tin lid perforated by tiny airholes and inset with the icon of an unrecognizable saint. The saint's face had been rubbed off, but the fingers of his right hand were raised to bless a short, purple, terrifically self-confident-looking mulberry tree. After gazing awhile at this vivid botanical presence, Chapter Eleven pulled the box from under the bed and opened it. Inside were the two wedding crowns made from rope and, coiled like snakes, the two long braids of hair, each tied with a crumbling black ribbon. He poked one of the braids with his index finger. Just then a parakeet squawked, making my brother jump, and he closed the box, tucked it under his arm, and carried it downstairs to Desdemona.
The reader instantly recognizes that he is in the presence of a real storyteller, whose admirable desire is to goad our tactilities. There is much confidence, dash, and charm in this little passage. First, the oddity of the objects themselves: the parakeets, the silkworm box, the wedding crowns of rope, the braids of hair. Next, the precision of the writing: exactly "twelve" birdcages, which are "damply newspapered"; the odor of "mothballs and hashish"; the box of olivewood and its perforated tin lid. And finally, the passage's charm: the little boy's domestic terror, the thick gloom or hideous mess of the room nicely suggested by that comical verb "found" ("he found my grandparents' bed"), and the delighted smirk that runs beneath the description of the priest on the box blessing the "short, purple, terrifically self-confident-looking mulberry tree." (The mulberry tree, remember, provides the silkworm with its home.)
Much of Eugenides's comic charm resides in, and flows from, his loyalty to his Greek-American background. If he has a curiosity that seems sweeter than the average postmodern writer, the run-of-the-mill I.Q.-with-an-iBook, it may have something to do with a willingness to let his ethnic material speak for itself. Certainly, although his novel is blemished by elements of didacticism and prolixity, and he is not without the postmodern urge to turn clouds of suggestion into storms of fact, Eugenides has a simple confidence in his Greek material that disarms his vices. He approaches his Greek-American immigrants without overweening mediation, as if these people have not been described very much until now. The result is usually a descriptive immediacy, vividly comic, often precisely realistic, but with that tilt of the real that narrative needs.
Thus we meet Desdemona Stephanides, who with her husband flees the Turks in Smyrna in 1922 and arrives in Detroit, where she has cousins. Desdemona, a formidable creature, has the habit of fanning herself when she gets angry or excited. "To anyone who never personally experienced it, it's difficult to describe the ominous, storm-gathering quality of my grandmother's fanning," says Calliope, her granddaughter and the book's narrator. And Desdemona's fans, it should be said, are eccentric: "the front of the fan was emblazoned with the words 'Turkish Atrocities.' Below, in smaller print, were the specifics: the 1955 pogrom in Istanbul in which 15 Greeks were killed, 200 Greek women raped, 4,348 stores looted, 59 Orthodox churches destroyed, and even the graves of the Patriarchs desecrated." Again, it is not only the verve of the writing that appeals, but its exactness. The idea of an "atrocity fan" is wonderful enough, but Eugenides's real talent lies in the detailed coda to this passage: "Desdemona had six atrocity fans. They were a collector's set. Each year she sent a contribution to the Patriarchate in Constantinople, and a few weeks later a new fan arrived, making claims of genocide and, in one case, bearing a photograph of Patriarch Athenagoras in the ruins of a looted cathedral." This is the kind of detail that makes narrative.
In addition to Desdemona, there is her husband Eleutherios, or "Lefty," who opens a speakeasy (later a diner) called The Zebra Room, and whose son Milton (Calliope's father) becomes a successful businessman, as the founder of Hercules Hot Dogs. Milton is a limited fellow, an instinctive American patriot and a Nixon supporter. Unlike his wife Tessie, he does not go to the local church, the Assumption Greek Orthodox, "having become an apostate at the age of eight over the exorbitant price of votive candles." Calliope often mocks her father, for the reader's benefit: "The only way my father could think of to instill in me a sense of my heritage was to take me to dubbed Italian versions of the ancient Greek myths." And there is Peter Tatakis, "Uncle Pete" as he is known, a proponent of the Great Books series, a collection of one hundred fifty world masterpieces (he has read them all twice). In the old country Uncle Pete has wanted to be a doctor, but the "catastrophe"—the flight from the Turks—ended that. "In the United States, he'd put himself through two years of chiropractic school, and now ran a small office in Birmingham with a human skeleton he was still paying for in installments."
In general, Eugenides's gift is for summation, for gargoyles rather than architecture. His characters tend to be introduced in blocks of description, which turn out to house their somewhat stable essences. It might be said that most of his Greek characters resemble each other—namely, that they all partake of the same kind of voluble Greekness, an ethnic robustness that skirts caricature. When Calliope tells us that throughout her childhood the slightest mention of the Depression would set Desdemona off "into a full cycle of wailing and breast-clutching," and that even the phrase "manic depression" once had this effect, we are being handed, too liberally and easily, a melodramatic essence, the fat wailing granny from the old country. In such cases, as so often in melodrama (in Babel's Cossacks, for instance), the complexities of characters are sacrificed on the altar of "vividness," and are simplified into mere appetite, which then becomes those characters' supposedly signal, but actually quite generic, attribute.
Eugenides often coaxes his Greek material; but in this regard he only coasts on it, as in a rather glib line like "every Greek drama needs a deus ex machina." Indeed, there are times when he comes close to the comedian's one-liner: "Easter Sunday, 1959. Our religion's adherence to the Julian calendar has once again left us out of sync with the neighborhood." The ecclesiastical reliably brings out the joker in Eugenides: "As far as I could tell, what happened every Sunday at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church was that the priests got together and read the Bible out loud. They started with Genesis and kept going straight through Numbers and Deuteronomy. Then on through Psalms and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, all the way up to the New Testament. Then they read that. Given the length of our services, I saw no other possibility."
If his people sound a little alike, they are ably diversified by the many lanes of the novel's effluviating plot. Middlesex is an enormously ambitious book, whose many stories do indeed gather to present a broad swath of Greek-American life. More, Eugenides wishes to use his three-generational structure to suggest something about fate, the bequeathments of genetics, and the possibility of revolt once fate has displayed its cards. To carry this thematic weight, he has chosen a very peculiar vehicle: his narrator's hermaphroditism. Desdemona and Lefty, we quickly learn, are brother and sister. Back in Bithynios, their tiny village in Asia Minor on the slopes of Mount Olympus, the parentless siblings began their incestuous affair on the crooked logic that although they were brother and sister, they were also third cousins, and cousins marry all the time. The relationship is jolted into hasty marriage by world events: suddenly the Turks are at their door and they must flee Smyrna, which is on fire. They marry on the boat to America, and pledge to keep their secret a secret.
It is hard not to admire the vigor with which Eugenides writes about Bithynios, and then about the sack of Smyrna. (It also allows him cheekily to quote from The Waste Land: "Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant/unshaven, with a pocketful of currants …") As Smyrna burns, the huddled citizens wait on the harborfront to be collected by anyone who will have them. A British frigate, anchored just offshore, makes no charitable gesture. Desdemona and Lefty, along with an Armenian doctor named Nishan Philobosian, are rescued by the French. A stirring epic froths forward. But what Eugenides gains in scope he loses in precision. A scene set on the British ship, in which fatuous officers scan the harborfront with binoculars and calmly say to each other. "Jolly crowded, what?" and "Nice cigar, what?" is cartoonish, an impression hardly helped by Eugenides's odd decision to have a "Major" (an army rank) on a naval boat, and to call the Royal Navy "His Majesty's Marines," whoever they are.
But once the novel arrives in America, it gains authenticity from the community in which Desdemona and Lefty live. They share a house in Detroit with another cousin, Sourmelina Zizmo. Lefty briefly works in the local Ford factory, then as a bootlegger for Sourmelina's husband, Jimmy. Sourmelina and Desdemona become pregnant on the same night, and give birth, respectively, to a daughter, Theodora (Tessie), and a son, Miltiades (Milton). When Jimmy dies, Lefty opens The Zebra Room, which in time will become a successful diner, until it falls victim to the Detroit riots of 1967. (Detroit's fires repeat, in American guise, the blazes of Smyrna.)
Meanwhile heredity advances with silent footfall. Desdemona is terrified that her incestuously conceived son Milton will be retarded or handicapped. He is neither, but he is carrying an invisible flaw, a mutation of the fifth chromosome—that is, hermaphroditism, a genetic oddity common in Bithynios, where for centuries families had intermarried. It is dormant until Milton marries Tessie, Sourmelina's daughter, also his cousin, who is carrying the same genetic flaw. Milton and Tessie's first child, Chapter Eleven, is unblemished. But their second, Calliope Stephanides, born in 1960, is a hermaphrodite, or more exactly a little girl who possesses recessed and barely visible male genitals, a victim of "5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome." An alert obstetrician might have noticed the tiny deformity, but Calliope was delivered by Dr. Philobosian, the Armenian refugee from Smyrna, now seventy-four and a little dithery.
Calliope maps the entanglements of her family inheritance with characteristic jollity. "So, to recap," begins one chapter. "Sourmelina Zizmo (née Pappasdiamondopoulis) wasn't only my first cousin twice removed. She was also my grandmother. My father was his own mother's (and father's) nephew. In addition to being my grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty were my great-aunt and -uncle. My parents were my second cousins and Chapter Eleven was my third cousin as well as my brother." Eugenides uses this genetic spaghetti as a way to embody, literally, the sentence of a family fate, Calliope, who in the magical realist mode is able to recount not only her birth but also her pre-history back to Bithynios, cannily ponders this burden, how to outwit it. At times too cannily: we hear about how "in the twentieth century, genetics brought the Ancient Greek notion of fate into our very cells," but that in the twenty-first century we have discovered that a surprisingly small number of genes actually determine our behavior. "And so a strange new possibility is arising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback."
The book clearly turns on this idea of destiny, and of destiny resisted, both by free will and by helpless action: first when Desdemona and Lefty have their lives changed and in turn change their lives by coming to America, and then when their granddaughter chooses, at the age of thirteen, to become a boy. Calliope, we are supposed to believe, is the synthesis that unites the restless dialectic of eros, and perhaps of history: a character neatly informs us that "Plato said that the original human being was a hermaphrodite. Did you know that? The original person was two halves, one male, one female. Then these got separated. That's why everybody's always searching for their other half. Except for us. We've got both halves already."
Whenever Eugenides presses on his themes this way, he bruises them; he stops trusting in his tale, apparently unaware that its very form incarnates its theme better than can any commentary. Alas, we are in a journalistically essayistic age, when a necessary component of a serious novel is thought to be a theoretical discussion of what the book is about. It is easy to forget that in fiction themes ideally mature like aloes, losing their stems as soon as they blossom; that is to say, themes need to forget themselves in the mind of the novel, need to break free of their beginnings. Eugenides is rather fond of reminding us just how neatly he has planted everything.
Yet once again Eugenides's charm, his life-jammed comedy, rescues the novel from its occasional didacticism. One can put it this way: a novel narrated by a hermaphrodite comes to seem largely routine, as if Calliope were simply rather fat or tall. A fact that might scream its oddity, and that might have been used again and again heavily to explore fashionable questions of identity and gender, is here blissfully domesticated. This Eugenides achieves by a patient and often funny adherence to the ordinary, which was exactly how he made the peculiar material of his last novel, The Virgin Suicides, seem just regularly suburban, Cheever-stamped fare. In short, Eugenides makes Calliope credible: she is not merely a theme (though she may sometimes be thematically used and abused, poor girl), but a high-spirited high school girl growing up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Paradoxically, Eugenides's boldness, his decision to risk an emblem as obvious as a hermaphrodite narrator (an emblem, that is, of helpless destiny), is what steers the novel away, finally, from the temptation of editorial writing.
Calliope may well be emblematic; but she is above all a hermaphrodite. One is reminded of Eudora Welty's crack that Melville needed a symbol so large and so real that it really had to be a whale. In some similar way, Eugenides's narrator, the product of many confused historical threads, had to be very, very confused. But the novel is helped enormously by Calliope's likability. Long before she is born and appears properly in the novel, we know her voice, because she has been telling us the history of her parents and her grandparents. So once she is installed in the book we are happy to follow her, from her baptism (she urinates on the priest) to her familial removal to the house on Middlesex Street and her enrollment at the fancy Baker and Inglis School for Girls at the age of twelve.
At school she falls in love with another girl: Eugenides has an interesting skill for evoking the love-thick air of teenage schoolrooms. In the math teacher's room, for instance, we are told that "a picture of the great mathematician Ramanujan (whom we girls at first took to be Miss Grotowski's boyfriend) hangs on the wall." A trip with the Love Object (as Calliope refers to her) to a bayside house yields some very good writing, though always strict and precise: "Out in front of us the bay flashed silver. The bay had scales, like the fish beneath." And so Calliope grows up—until the moment when, in part because of her affair with the Love Object, she discovers that she is not a girl, or not only one.
And then the skies come down, in Greek fashion. Her parents take her to New York to a specialist called Dr. Luce, a marvelously trendy, early-1970s figure, a slightly shady pioneer just breaking the newly fertile crust of "sexology." Calliope runs away and has many adventures, and while she is missing, her father Milton, founder of Hercules Hot Dogs, dies in very strange circumstances that involve the local priest, Father Mike. The novel ends with his funeral, somberly. But the book's merriness cannot be suppressed, and the residue that the comic spirit leaves behind gleams with energy. Perhaps the funniest of many delightful episodes in the novel involves the visit of Dr. Müller, a nutritionist, to the Stephanides home. Dr. Müller is doing a longevity study, and is writing an article on "The Mediterranean Diet." He is impressed by Desde-mona's great age, and "to that end, he plied her with questions about the cuisine of her homeland.
German by blood, he renounced his race when it came to its cooking. With post-war guilt, he decried bratwurst, sauer-braten, and Königsberger Klopse as dishes verging on poison. They were the Hitler of foods. Instead he looked to our own Greek diet … as potential curatives, as life-giving, artery-cleansing, skin-smoothing wonder drugs. And what Dr. Müller said seemed to be true: though he was only forty-two, his face was wrinkled, burdened with jowls. Gray hair prickled up on the sides of his head; whereas my father, at forty-eight, despite the coffee stains beneath his eyes, was still the possessor of an unlined olive complexion and a rich, glossy, black head of hair. They didn't call it Grecian Formula for nothing. It was in our food!
The doctor shows the family the graphs that he has made, listing names and birthdates of Italians, Greeks, and a single Bulgarian living in the Detroit area. The doctor thinks that Desdemona is ninety-one. The family does not mention that "Desdemona was actually seventy-one, not ninety-one, and that she always confused sevens with nines…. We couldn't. We didn't want to lose out to the Italians or even that one Bulgarian."
This is characteristic of the novel's high-spirited, Greek-obsessed, ethnically competitive clan. And it is characteristic, too, of Eugenides's conjuring of childish innocence. He has accomplished one of the most difficult novelistic tricks: an adult voice using the full resources of the language and the proper prestiges of adulthood (Calliope is recalling his story as a middle-aged man now living in Berlin) that is simultaneously a child's voice, representing an excited, receptive, and bolting response to the world. Eugenides successfully combines the two visions, and so the book is joyously Calliope's. In our day, this achievement of a mature uncorruptedness represents something of a triumph.
Source: James Wood, "Unions," in the New Republic, October 7, 2002, pp. 31-34.
Collins, Rachel, Review of Middlesex, in Library Journal, July 2002, p. 116.
Eugenides, Jeffrey, Middlesex, Picador, 2002.
Review of Middlesex, in Publishers Weekly, July 1, 2002, p. 46.
Watman, Max, "Suffer the Children," in New Criterion, November 2002, pp. 65-71.
Wilkinson, Joanne, Review of Middlesex, in Booklist, June 1 & 15, 2002, p. 1644.
Wood, James, "Unions," in New Republic, October 7, 2002, pp. 31-34.
Colapinto, John, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, Harper Collins, 2000.
Journalist Colapinto tells the true story of a boy who was raised a girl after he survived a botched circumcision.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Basic Books, 2000.
Fausto-Sterling examines the biological and environmental influences that determine sexuality.
Sowerby, Robin, The Greeks: An Introduction to Their Culture, Routledge, 1995.
This work presents a concise but comprehensive view of ancient Greek culture.
Woodhouse, C. M., Modern Greece: A Short History, Faber and Faber, 2000.
Woodhouse presents an overview of the history and culture of Greece from 324 to 1990.
In Roman times it formed part of the territory of the Trinovantes and their competitors the Cassivellauni. Very soon after the Roman arrival, Londinium developed as by far the largest town and the seat of government and this dictated the subsequent history of the area. Watling Street, the great road to the north-west, bisected the county from Tyburn to Elstree: Ermine Street, the road to York, ran just inside the eastern border, from Tottenham to Cheshunt. Since, until the opening of the M25, all the great routes radiated to and from London, crossing the county was not easy, and Palmer's Green in the east had little contact with Staines in the west, nor Enfield with Uxbridge.
That part of the territory which survived as Middlesex was probably too small to sustain an independent kingdom, unlike Sussex, Essex, and Wessex. But the existence of Surrey (the south land) suggests a brief Middle Saxon kingdom straddling the Thames. The importance of London meant that there was strong competition from neighbouring kingdoms. By the 6th cent. the area seems to have formed a province of Essex, and by the 8th it had been taken over by Mercia. In the later 9th cent., after the struggle between Alfred and the Danes, the region became part of Wessex. By then it was a recognized shire.
The development of Middlesex as a county was stunted by the influence of London in the south-east. It fell naturally into the diocese of London, founded in 604. In the 12th cent. the city of London was given the right to appoint the sheriff of Middlesex and the assizes were held at the Old Bailey. Though the original area was thinly populated, with forests in Enfield Chase, marshes in the east, and poor thin soil in the west, in the course of time it became one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The influence of London was so overwhelming that few Middlesex towns grew to any size. Apart from Westminster, none had their own parliamentary representation. Economically too, the shire was totally dependent upon London, and from an early period became a scene of market gardens and gentlemen's parks, of which Hampton Court (royal), Sion House (Northumberland), Osterley (Child), and Cannons (Chandos) were the most celebrated.
By 1700, London had half a million inhabitants, by 1800 nearly a million. At that time, setting aside towns like Edmonton, Chelsea, and Hammersmith, which were already London suburbs, the largest towns in the shire were Enfield with 6,000 people and Isleworth with 4,000, Uxbridge 2,100, Hendon 1,900, Staines 1,700, and Brentford 1,400. Of the six hundreds into which the county was divided, Spelthorne, Elthorne, Gore, Edmonton, and Isleworth had a total of 55,000 inhabitants, while the sixth, Ossulston, where the growth of London had taken place, had well over 750,000.
The political absorption of the county by London gathered pace in the 19th cent. The growth of the railway network brought another leap forward by the capital. In 1888 a considerable portion of south-east Middlesex, including Highbury, Hampstead, and Hammersmith, was sliced off to form part of the new county of London. In 1965, in another reorganization, the county disappeared altogether, most going to Greater London, but Staines and Sunbury moving to Surrey and Potters Bar to Hertfordshire.
J. A. Cannon