Is gender genetically or socially determined? This is the question that lies behind Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex. Enter Calliope – the lucky girl who gets to be a muse for her adult male self. Calliope is raised as a girl but discovers at the age of fourteen that genetically, and almost physically, she is actually male.
Middlesex is often presented as a single story – Calliope’s. In fact, the novel doesn’t really belong to Calliope at all, it is more about how the entire Stefanides family and their various experiences resulted in Calliope. And so the novel actually begins in their ancestral village of Smyrna, a village the Stefanides were forced to leave during the Great Fire of 1922, and moves forward through two further generations as the family adjusts to immigrant life in Detroit.
Eugenides uses incest and its genetic consequences as an explanation for Calliope’s disorder and so he sets it up early. In Smyrna, we meet Desdemona and her brother Lefty – who soon becomes her husband Lefty. The problem of inbreeding is continued, in a lesser degree, in the subsequent generation when Desdemona and Lefty’s son Milton marries his second cousin. The adult Cal is our narrator through all of this and his tone is an intriguing one – part admirative, part sympathetic, part accusative. He has a vested interest in getting the details of his family history recorded correctly because they are what made him who and what he is.
The trick to enjoying this novel is perhaps understanding its humor. Cal’s hermaphroditic situation is tragic but it is so tragic it is also comic. And the entire family history rides along the crest of that paradox. Once Lefty and Desdemona finally arrive in Detroit, their immigrant experience turns into a kind of farcical sitcom: Lefty gets work as a rumrunner, they move in with their married (but devoutly lesbian) cousin, they open a juke joint that eventually becomes an old-fashioned diner, Desdemona gets work in a wacky mosque. But beneath that are all the banal tragedies of life: racism, poverty, and perhaps the most poignant tragedy of all, despite their unusual romantic beginnings Lefty and Desdemona struggle with the sad reality of a fading love affair. The torch is passed to the next generation – enter Milton and Tessie and their children.
Finally, we meet Calliope. Calliope’s childhood more closely examines the novel’s preoccupying question about gender determinism. She is a beautiful child who grows tall and slender, perfectly girlie and bad at sports to boot. Socially, she is unequivocally a girl. But puberty acts as the catalyst for all of Calliope’s gender identity issues – she falls in love with another girl at her school which leads toward her first confusing sexual experiences, the eventual discovery of her genetic mutation and the journey of self-realization that ensues.
Middlesex is a multi-storied saga. The novel begins with such incredible steam, charging forward unapologetically through Lefty and Desdemona’s affair and what happens to this unusual couple in America. But it somehow loses pressure as we get closer to Calliope. Perhaps because it is the adult Cal telling the story – without meaning to he answers almost all our questions about his life and what it has done to him before we get a chance to ask them. There is no doubt, however, that Middlesex is an interesting and captivating read. The book is extremely well-written and contains a breathtaking amount of history. If for nothing else, the sheer creativity in Eugenides’ careful prose makes this a book worth trying.