Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

 

Middlesex
Jeffrey Eugenides
London: Bloomsbury, 2002/2003.
£16.99, 544 pages, ISBN 0-7475-6023-4 (hardback).
£7.99, 544 pages, ISBN 0-7475-6162-1 (paperback).

Wendy O'Brien
Central Queensland University

 

Much 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.

From 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. (401)


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).

This 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:

I 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 accents. (361)

In 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:

Through 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)

It 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.

The French translation has just been published.

* Jeffrey Eugenides. “Jeffrey Eugenides Has it Both Ways.” Interview with Dave Weich. <www.powells.com/authors/eugenides.html>



Cercles2003
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.