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“Middlesex”

Middlesex

Column by Chase Booth
boothcha@grinnell.edu

“Middlesex” is one of those novels that everyone has heard of and has shelved on their Goodreads to-read lists (at least, this is the case in my friend’s list) but for some reason has not gotten around to starting. Whatever is causing your hesitation to finally pick up this moving story, I’m here to tell you that there is a reason why Oprah selected this novel for her book club (yes, I do think Oprah has great taste) and, more importantly, why it won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl … and then again, as a teenage boy,” asserts the narrator in the opening lines of “Middlesex,” Jeffrey Eugenides’ intergenerational, coming-of-age tale about a mutated gene, an extended family history and the narrator Cal’s childhood and realization about his gender identity. Diagnosed with five-alpha reductase deficiency, Cal, formerly Calliope, takes the reader on a journey through his family’s past to explain the origins of his diagnosis and later, affirmation of his male identity after being raised as female. He begins by narrating his Greek grandparents’ immigration from Bursa in Asia Minor to Detroit, Mich. in order to escape the Greco-Turkish conflict. The kicker: his grandparents are siblings. By charting the course of his family history, Cal unfolds a chain of events that eventually leads to his childhood growing up on Middlesex street in Detroit (not coincidentally a metaphoric allusion to Cal’s own gender identity) and under what circumstances he arrived at his diagnosis and his journey to accepting his authentic identity.

The greatest quality of “Middlesex” is probably the character of Cal himself. His numerous interpolations throughout the family saga are witty, illuminating and revealing of Eugenides’ ability to craft a complex and dynamic character. Indeed, I was so drawn to Cal’s character that I thought it was such a shame that the reader did not come to his story until the last half of the book. I did enjoy the family history but at times I was aching for more of Cal and less of his family history. That said, one cannot help but nod to Eugenides’ fabulous command of the English language and especially his insights into human psychology. A major theme in “Middlesex” is that of hybridity in all aspects of life, exemplified especially by this insight of Cal’s: “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling.” The novel masterfully elucidates this theme of blending polar opposites in such a way that the reader takes away far more than just the saga of one individual and his family but a more complex picture of human emotion and experience.

The novel also offers a refreshing commentary on social constructions of gender and, in particular, the nature vs. nurture debate through the coming-of-age of Cal as an intersex individual. Cal frequently reflects on his upbringing as a female and spends much of the novel on his budding attraction to women. These themes are not so disguised as to require a literary-minded analysis of the text nor too obvious that I feel I am being bashed over the head by metaphors. Eugenides succinctly weaves the theme of hybridity as embodied by the narrator Cal on multiple levels throughout the novel—growing up on Middlesex road, Greek-American identity, family connections, metamorphoses and, of course, gender identity. However, some critics have pointed out Eugenides’ sometimes controversial depiction of intersex lives.

Eugenides began writing “Middlesex” after his dissatisfaction with Herculine Barbin’s, a 19th century French intersex individual, memoir, believing it evaded an adequate emotional discussion of Herculine’s experience growing up as intersex. The project took him nine years to complete and, despite plenty of opportunity to do so, he did not consult, let alone meet, an intersex individual, an interesting choice on his part given that the goal of his novel was to elucidate the emotional capacity of an intersex person.

However, despite Eugenides’ problematic approach to writing “Middlesex”, the novel ultimately proves to be a masterfully written tale about the emotional and physical maturation of an incredibly enthralling character. And its message is adequately summarized by this realization of Cal’s: “Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”

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