Through which lens do we capture the best glimpse of our identity? Through the lens of gender, that fraught binary more cultural than cosmetic? Through the lens of biology, the prenatal release of enzymes that dictate our physiological and dispositional fate? Is it family history, the mores and traditions that get coded into our very reflexes? Or is it the gravitational pull of our specific time and place, the external forces that threaten to crush us if we don’t abide?
The answer, as Jeffery Eugenides will rightly tell you, is all of the above and more. Through his wildly spacious and brilliantly written 2001 novel Middlesex, Eugenides tackles the prismatic influences that come to bear on a single self. The book tells the story of Calliope Stephanides, an American of Greek descent who is born, unbeknownst to her family, a hermaphrodite—her underdeveloped male genitalia hidden inside the labial folds of her female ones. The model for Callie’s first-person omniscience is clearly David Copperfield, but Eugenides takes this narrative strategy to whole other level. Without explanation or apology, Callie is able to dive deep into the history and psyche of three generations of her family to explore the underlying forces that helped shape her transformation from a girl into a boy.
Before I praise this novel to the rafters, I do want to get a quibble out of the way. The framing story that Eugenides sets up—with the adult Calliope (now referred to simply as Cal) working as a diplomat in Germany and living life as a man—seems, if not completely extraneous, at least undone by a paucity of detail and narrative tension. The present-day bits of Middlesex are as inchoate as Callie’s penis, as inaccessible as a pair of undescended testicles, and Eugenides could have either ditched these sections or reworked them to contain a stronger raison d’etre.
But it’s what resides within that frame, the remarkable storytelling and elaborately drawn characters, that make Middlesex worth reading. I love the way Eugenides successfully throws narrative balance out the window when explaining how inbreeding has caused Callie’s condition: he dedicates nearly a full third of this novel to the relationship between her grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, who immigrate to America from Greece and settle in Detroit. The sensuality and raw lust between Desdemona and Lefty do what they’re supposed to—make you overlook the fact that they’re brother and sister, not to mention third cousins. In fact, the entire small Greek village where they come from has a history of incest and inbreeding, and this precipitates the genetic mutation that shapes Callie’s life three generations later. There is a wonderful metaphor in this section—that of gestating silk worms that Desdemona raises to earn some money on the side—and Eugenides uses it without over overdoing its significance to the nascent gender inside Callie.
As Callie works her way up the generations to her own story, we get a broader and more detailed sense of what shapes her identity. Part of this, of course, involves the history and strife of her native Detroit. With breathtaking descriptions of assembly line monotony, Eugenides puts us right inside the culture of the Ford Motor Company. Lefty works there briefly in the 1920s and learns first hand how capitalism rewrites the very code of what it means to be human. Later, Callie’s parents, Milton and Tessie (who are also distantly related) escape the race riots of 1967 and move to the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe. Eugenides makes a connection (but again, not overdoing it) between the burning city of Detroit and the conflict in Greece that first forced the Stephanides family to move to America. Meanwhile, Milton starts up a successful hot dog franchise and becomes enamoured with his own “self made” image, imbued by the arrogance and blinders that only entrepreneurship can bring. All of this sets the stage for the identity crisis Callie will experience as she moves into puberty in the early 1970s.
And what an identity crisis! Callie falls in love with one of her female classmates, referred to euphemistically as the Obscure Object. Are they just friends? Are they teenage lesbians in the throes of experimentation? Or is there something more complex happening? Callie gets an inkling of her biological situation when she has a very stunted (and painful) sexual encounter with the Object’s brother. This in turn leads to an accident that hospitalizes Callie and finally reveals the truth about her condition. A visit to a renowned expert on hermaphroditism in New York goes especially disastrous: the doctor recommends that a) Callie undergo a simple procedure to remove her male bits and that b) Milton and Tessie continue raising her as a girl. In a moment of existential clarity, Callie realizes that she is a boy—not a girl—and flees, running away on a hitchhiked journey across the country.
Here Middlesex slips into a bit of implausibility: Callie (now Cal), sporting a short haircut and boy’s clothes, finds his way to San Francisco, first living in a park with homeless people before finding work in a bawdy house for freaks. His double genitals becomes a star attraction and Cal seems to relish—or at least be indifferent to—his newfound life as a transgender exhibitionist. A police raid on the joint eventually reunites Cal with his family in Michigan. But meanwhile, Milton is tricked into thinking Cal has been kidnapped, and this leads to a far-fetched confrontation with an old rival that results in an implausible car crash atop the Ambassador Bridge into Canada.
Thankfully, the novel redeems itself once Cal gets home. Middlesex’s most beautiful moment comes when Cal confronts his grandmother, Desdemona, who is now very old and very senile. At first his transformation into a boy baffles her. But with a confession that is neither monumental nor banal, Desdemona admits to her incestuous past and that of the Greek village where she was born, and how this history of inbreeding often resulted in children with confused gender physiologies. It is a touching moment because Eugenides strikes so many perfect balances in this one encounter: in her sea of senility, Desdemona states what she states with a kind of matter-of-fact flippancy, and yet this does not take the wind of the sails of the novel’s climax. And Desdemona’s final acceptance of Cal as Cal is perfect—all that history has led up to this change and she states that as something to be accepted, even welcomed.
The many complex threads of Middlesex come together in the end to make a deeply satisfying whole. Eugenides has crafted an exquisitely complex novel that serious readers will love losing themselves in. A massive achievement in 21st century American literature.