I’m not sure about you, but I know virtually nothing about hermaphrodites. Anatomically, I can fumble the pieces together like Steve Carell in 40 Year Old Virgin during the family health clinic scene. Biologically, I can formulate a nice little Punnett square and do the math. But I’ve never actually met anyone or read about anyone who was a hermaphrodite (now more commonly referred to as “intersex”).
Well, there’s a first time for everything! Middlesex* is a widely celebrated, Pulitzer Prize winning novel written by Jeffrey Eugenides which follows the transition of the protagonist narrator from female (Calliope/Callie Stephanides) to male (Cal Stephanides). How convenient that she could just throw away four letters and achieve a masculine name. Maybe in my next life I’ll be a male and you can call me “say”. In fact, you can just start calling me that now, but use “sensei” instead since it rolls off the tongue a little more.
Eugenides was somewhat of a sensei himself in that he paved the way for more in depth discussions on gender identity, ethnic assimilation issues, race relations, and the emotions behind psychosexual milestones. As he was not an intersex individual himself, he painstakingly sifted through research on the topic—a process which took over nine years until he felt sufficiently confident in his intellectual milieu. Following a tumultuous internal debate over the voice of the novel, Eugenides settled for a memoir in which Cal retraces the steps of his family’s legacy. He starts with his grandparents, moves right along to his parents, details his upbringing (as a she), and continues through his intersex transformation, relating the reverberations that the acknowledged change had on his family. While there has been some negative criticism as to the unrealistic scope of Cal’s hindsight (he was obviously not alive to witness and report all that occurred before his birth), I actually find his narrative breadth refreshing. Cal’s unwavering omniscience makes him seem almost divine, which in turn spurs me to trust his story. Usually omniscient people know what’s good. On the other hand, he consistently reminds readers of his humanness. For instance, once he is born in the storyline (seemingly as a she), Cal reminds us that, “from here on in, everything I’ll tell you is colored by the subjective experience of being part of events” (Eugenides, 263). Psychology 101 for ya. I believe that because he simultaneously transcends the plot and is embedded within, he is able to speak with a special kind of candor that makes you feel like he’s your best friend sitting next to you telling a story.
Additionally, this narrative form underscores the interconnectedness of familial generations, a major theme throughout the novel. For instance, when Cal describes his grandparent’s home-life, he states, “I can feel how the house changed in the months leading to 1933” (Eugenides, 157). All that happens to his ancestors trickles down and echoes within him. This cross-generational theme is also materialized more literally. At one point in the novel, Cal rightfully claims that “to be happy you have to find variety in repetition” (Eugenides, 69). Indeed, the novel is often cyclical in nature—something I believe is a metaphor for life. When Calliope is born, Cal reflects that at the time she was her grandmother’s favorite grandchild because of her ability to “erase the years between [them]…giv[ing] Desdemona back her original skin” (Eugenides, 223). Oh, the irony! So, not only is Cal spiritually sensitive to even the most diminutive details of his grandparent’s life prior to his existence, the generational gap is physically bridged when the elderly characters see something of themselves within their youth. All of this would be forgone if Cal’s narrative awareness had been limited. Take that, Richard Lacayo from Time*.
Unlike my previous reviews, I’m not going to spoil the elaborate story of this novel for the sake of justifying my ratings. There are too many shocking twists and turns worth reading; however, I will outline some of my favorite elements. For example, it’s very sexy without being risqué. I mean, after all, he’s talking about his grandparents and his parents getting it on…not exactly masturbation material. In other words, you’re not going to need one of these:
Furthermore, I very much enjoyed Eugenides’ blending of fact and fiction. Despite what my book review choices might reveal, my predilection for nonfiction far outweighs that of fiction. This novel manages to satisfy both by sprinkling historically factual elements into the storyline. For instance, Cal’s grandparents are affected by the Balkan Wars, Cal’s father takes a firm stance on the Watergate scandal, and the entire family is endangered by the 1967 Detroit riots. It’s a history lesson ensconced within an imaginary tale and that is genius.
Lastly, I love that Cal often gives plot revealing hints prematurely. Many of the most surprising and ironical revelations are briefly hinted at beforehand. I won’t say anymore than that! But I do like the brief pause moments where you’re like…am I an idiot that has completely missed that relation the entire time? Whereas in reality it hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet. On the downside, Desdemona (Cal’s grandmother) is exactly like Liv Soprano from The Sopranos. Cue the Family Guy scene where everyone vomits everywhere. Liv Soprano is THE worst and that’s not an opinion. Luckily Desdemona goes ghost a large portion of the novel.
Overlooking the Soprano comparison, I give the novel 5 out of 5 camel humps. The book incites you to think about groups of people other than yourself and it does so creatively and inconspicuously. That’s the best way to learn—when you hardly notice that you’re learning. I truly could not put this book down at the time of reading and there’s something to be said for an author’s ability to engross a reader so wholly. Both Cal and Eugenides have “personal belief[s] that real life doesn’t live up to writing about it” and I think that the degree of entertainment and profundity this novel offers is proof of such a conviction (Eugenides, 189).
*Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002. Print.
*Lacayo, Richard. (September 23, 2002). “Middlesex”. Time, 160(13). Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,351222,00.html