By Jeffrey Eugenides
Reader’s Choice 4/04
What should you expect from an author who, at one point in his life, drove a cab in Detroit and at another worked alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India? In this case the answer is a big, sprawling, good-hearted, wild ride of a book. “Middlesex”, only the second novel of author Jeffrey Eugenides, so impressed critics and academics that it won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003. It is on the scale of a Greek myth with larger-than-life characters, uncanny events and a location so vivid it becomes a character itself.
On Page One we meet the narrator of the story, Cal, a fortyish American man working in Berlin, who recounts matter-of-factly that he lived the first fourteen years of life as a girl by the name of Calliope. And so begins the first-person story of a young hermaphrodite or intersexual, we are told, who has both external and internal sex organs of a male and a female. Author Eugenides recounts in interviews that he worries that readers may be disturbed by this opening and reject the book. He explained to an online interviewer, "I see it as a family story. I used a hermaphrodite not to tell the story of a freak or someone unlike the rest of us but as a correlative for the sexual confusion and confusion of identity that everyone goes through in adolescence."
Cal takes us back two generations to Asia Minor, to a village by Mount Olympus, where the roots of his story lie with his grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, a colorful and unusually close couple (they are siblings, to be exact) who escape from the burning city of Smyrna and emigrate to Detroit. Since the timeframe of the story spans the years from the 1920’s to the present, the streets of Detroit and its suburbs form the backdrop, and we catch glimpses of the dismal routine an assembly-line worker experiences, the paternalistic management style of the Ford company, the rise of the nation of Islam, the devastating race riots of 1967 and the ‘white flight’ to exclusive suburbs like Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
I never cease to be amazed at the breadth of knowledge an author can demonstrate in an epic like this. The characters and settings come alive with Eugenides’ brilliant and detailed writing. The story in some ways parallels the life of Eugenides who is a Greek-American, born in Detroit in 1960, now living in Berlin, Germany. Some readers insist that Eugenides must be a hermaphrodite, for how else, they say, could someone know and understand so much about the physical and emotional components of the condition?. Brushing that off, Eugenides explains in interviews that he knew for a long time he wanted to write a book about a hermaphrodite. His research on the topic led him to the discovery that a genetic mutation, 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, responsible for Cal’s form of hermaphroditism, is found in areas like the small, inbred community his own ancestors came from. So the mingling of his own lineage and Callie’s helped him develop the complex framework of the saga.
We readers all benefit from the background and experiences this observant, funny and courageous writer draws on in telling his fascinating tale. I promise it won’t take more than a few pages to draw you into a most remarkable story.