“As a rule people don’t notice much”, says Cal Stephanides, the protagonist as well as the narrator of Jeffrey Eugenides’ second novel. A point one would find hard to dispute. But then it certainly isn’t something one could accuse Cal of: the strength of the book is in the detail. The detail rips through the book’s rather conventional narration (some glimpses into Cal’s Berlin future notwithstanding), and makes the whole thing so rich, full, and appealing.
Middlesex reads like a cross between a saga, a fairytale, and a Bildungsroman. In that sense it is not unlike Salman Rushdie’s seminal Midnight’s Children. Centered around Cal/Callie, the book tells a story of a Greek family and all the numerous hardships and calamities it endures: the Greco-Turkish War, immigration, Depression, riots in Detroit... But that is hardly what gives the novel its edge: it has to be the inclusion of all those whimsical and amusing characters and situations (much like in Midnight’s Children) and, of course, the fact that it is all processed through the sharp, restless eyes of a hermaphrodite. Hence the title.
The novel came almost ten years after Eugenides’ acclaimed debut, The Virgin Suicides (1993; also a successful film by Sofia Coppola). But considering the epic aspect of the book, both quality and quantity considered, this was perhaps fully justified. When it comes to a tale of this density and proportion, everything has to be thought through and nothing can be overlooked. But this perfectness of the plot (subplots, coincidences, etc.) isn’t in any way grating. Middlesex never seems polished or soulless; on the contrary, it makes for a thoroughly entertaining read. The focal point is the child birth, and it was anything but straightforward. Since Cal’s parents wanted their second child to be a girl, they took all scientific precautions to ensure the right sex of the child – which consisted in a carefully timed intercourse too complicated to comprehend. The trouble was Desdemona, a granite, immovable monument of a grandmother who’d never failed in predicting a child’s sex with her silver spoon (which somehow brings to mind Rushdie’s spittoon). The silver spoon, science against God and modernity against tradition, indicates it will be a boy. Naturally.
The detail I was speaking of earlier comes courtesy of the fact that a hermaphrodite has a chance of seeing a fuller, more vivid picture of the world. And in his reminiscences Cal, a girl who grew into a man, plunges into it all with lots of spirited gusto and sincerity. The downside of it is that you also have to go through numerous medical data that can enhance Middlesex’s credibility but hardly the actual enjoyment of the book.
Throughout Eugenides touches upon a number of sensitive issues: incest, child abuse, teenage sex, etc. , but there’s so much humour and warmth rushing through this thing, that it only adds a great deal of thrilling, irresistible colour to the novel. Having missed too many American novels from 2002, I’m in no position to judge whether The Pulitzer was justified (I can vouch for it being well-deserved, though), but in Middlesex Eugenides managed to create a deeply intelligent page-turner that maybe doesn’t teach us much. But does disclose what it takes to be different.