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London: Bloomsbury, 2002/2003.
£16.99, 544 pages, ISBN 0-7475-6023-4 (hardback).
£7.99, 544 pages, ISBN 0-7475-6162-1 (paperback).
Central Queensland University
has been written about Jeffrey Eugenides's second novel, Middlesex,
but some books can never get too many reviews. In an impressive
sweep that incorporates both spectacle and subtle sensuality, Middlesex
(winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), chronicles the
lives of three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family.
Eugenides positions the hermaphroditic child narrator Cal to retroactively
construct, and indeed invent, the family’s past. The first
half of the novel is a lyrical and richly textured fable in which
Desdemona and Lefty (Cal’s grandparents) are drawn first as
siblings and then as lovers. Correlating political and personal
turmoil throughout, the novel begins with the personal ramifications
of the sacking of Smyrna by the Turks in 1922. As the Stephanides
family flee the burning city and begin a new life in Grosse Point,
Michigan; the second half of the novel weaves the fable of love
and longing with serious attention to sexology, pathologisation,
and the tricky business of genetics.
my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged
the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn’t do
much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have
been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people
inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows.
Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive
gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed.
Indicative of the textual slipperiness in Middlesex, the
narrator offers an option on how the reader might consider the recessive
gene that is responsible for Cal’s hermaphroditic body. The
not-yet-conceived Cal narrates the foetal Cal’s development
as chromosomes align “[a]rrayed in their regiments, my genes
carry out their orders. All except two, a pair of miscreants—or
revolutionaries, depending on your view—hiding out on chromosome
number 5” (16). Cal’s ambivalence regarding his hermaphroditic
development is characteristic of the novel’s representation
of sexuality and corporeality as labile. For all of the
characters the body is territory to be negotiated. Cal’s grandmother,
Desdemona, exists in uneasy relation to her body. “Though
physically mature, Desdemona’s body was still a stranger to
its owner” (26). Always “announcing itself in ways she
didn’t sanction” (24), Desdemona’s body, like
Cal’s, prompts an awareness of the complexities with which
the subject conceives of their own corporeality and the role that
this has in their development of the self.
Subtly foregrounding the intersection between narrative and the
invention of the self, Cal writes first her and then himself into
the story. As the novel progresses Calliope becomes Cal, with the
discovery that the female identity is not biologically sanctioned.
The narrative self-consciousness is carefully wrought through Cal’s
fictionalised familial history, but this also contributes to the
novel’s critique of naturalised gender expectations. In addition
to the slippery pronouns of the narrative, the text prompts the
reader to ponder possibilities for subjectivity if freed from patriarchal
linearity, particularly as this is perpetuated through stories and
language. Both the novel and the characters within refuse linearity,
working, rather, in circles of narrative reinvention. Cal’s
retelling of the Stephanides’ family history is in part a
reinvention of Cal’s self, but within this, each character
of the Stephanides family are represented as narratives that are
subject to revision. As Lefty and Desdemona pace the deck of the
ship after their marriage each circle walked is a revision in the
narrative of self. “[A]s they paced around the deck for the
first time, Lefty and Desdemona were still brother and sister. The
second time, they were bride and bride-groom. And the third, they
were husband and wife” (69). It is notable that it is not
just Cal’s hermaphroditic body that is shifting and contingent.
Rather, Cal’s body serves to undermine the unquestionable
permanence of cultural habits that are internalised as human nature.
As Cal learns to walk as a man he realises that all men are actively
striving to walk as men. “Children lean to speak male or female
the way they speak English or French” (411).
contestation of naturalised biological territory also casts light
on the naturalisation of social and political territory. Political,
military, and medical discourse coincide to reinforce both the critique
of biological determinism but also the ‘cunning’ with
which certain economic or political agendas are served:
started faking my period. With Nixonian cunning, Calliope unwrapped
and flushed away a flotilla of unused Tampax. I feigned symptoms
from headache to fatigue. I did cramps the way Meryl Streep did
choosing a hermaphroditic narrator, Eugenides has produced a novel
that interrogates the impositions of gendered perspective. Of his
process he has said “it seemed to me that a novelist has to
have a hermaphroditic imagination, since you should be able to go
into the heads of men and women if you want to write books.”*
Cal’s corporeal fluidity and the possibilities that this engenders
for the narrative point of view are in stark contrast to the restricted
narrative position of Eugenides's first novel, The Virgin Suicides.
In this novel the only vision of the ethereal Lisbon sisters is
provided by the young boys who are infatuated with them. This exclusively
male point of view foregrounding the fact that the boys could only
know the girls through the fragments and glimpses of their lives
that the girls chose to share. Inverting gendered patterns of objectification,
the boys’ lives are transformed by the enigmatic girls who
determine their own destinies in the face of institutionalised and
voyeuristic efforts to impose gendered expectations upon them. In
Middlesex, the textual self-consciousness of Cal’s
hermaphroditic narration prompts questions about the assumption
that selfhood is a seamless trajectory ordained and biologically
inscribed from the time of genital development. The time that Cal
spends pondering the appearance, function, and pleasures of corporeality
cannot be finally resolved. The significance of the body is seen
as permanently contingent:
all this I made no lasting conclusions about myself. I know it’s
hard to believe, but that’s the way it words. The mind self-edits.
The mind airbrushes. It’s a different thing to be inside a
body than outside. From outside, you can look, inspect, compare.
From inside there is no comparison. In the past year the crocus
had lengthened considerably. At its most demonstrative it was now
about two inches long. Most of this length, however, was concealed
by the flaps of skin from which it issued. Then there was the hair.
In its quiet state, the crocus was barely noticeable. What I saw
looking down at myself was only the dark triangular badge of puberty.
When I touched the crocus it expanded, swelling until with a kind
of pop it slid free of the pouch it was in. It poked its head up
into the air. Not too far, though. No more than an inch past the
tree line. What did this mean? I knew from personal experience that
the Object had a crocus of her own. It swelled, too, when touched.
Mine was just bigger, more effusive in its feelings. My crocus wore
its heart on its sleeve. (387-388)
is a treat to live with these characters a while. The constructed
world here is wondrous, and Middlesex is worthy of the
accolades with which it has been met. This novel works to interrogate
the nexus of biological determinism and narrative, but it also works
to offer a richly patterned and satisfying tale of epic proportions.
I enthusiastically recommend this novel.
French translation has just been published.
Jeffrey Eugenides. “Jeffrey Eugenides Has it Both Ways.”
Interview with Dave Weich. <www.powells.com/authors/eugenides.html>
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