About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Last night, I finished my first book of 2010: Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. As I mentioned earlier, it took years to pull it down from the bookshelf, blow the dust off, and pack it away for my last sojourn in NH ... and now I know what the fuss was about.

Jacket blurb: "Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of 1967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic."

There are multi-generational family sagas, and immigrant sagas, stacked three-deep in every bookstore, but nonetheless, Middlesex stands alone. In large part, the credit goes to its narrator: Cal/ Calliope, born and raised as a girl by Greek-American parents in Detroit, but now, as the story begins, living as Cal, a 41-year-old male diplomat living in Berlin. Many reviews have quoted the memorable opening line: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." We know from the first paragraph that Cal is a hermaphrodite, specifically, a "5-alpha-reductase pseudohermaphrodite."

What we don't know, and can't help being frantically curious to learn, is how Cal/ Calliope got from the first birth to the second to the 41-year-old self we meet on the first page. This odyssey is a long one, beginning on the slopes of Mt. Olympus almost 40 years before Calliope's birth. Here, siblings Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides find themselves with neither past nor future; their parents were killed in a recent war with the Turks, Desdemona's efforts to find Lefty a wife from the slim pickings in their village are unsuccessful, and the Greek army is in retreat from the Turks yet again. Posing as French nationals, they flee to Smyrna and board a ship to Detroit to join a married cousin. Once on board, they pretend they've never met, and are ultimately married by the ship's captain.

In the New World, no one save cousin Sourmelina knows they are brother and sister, and she has enough secrets of her own that Desdemona easily swears her to secrecy. Desdemona's famed silkworms don't make it past Ellis Island, so the pair enter the States with nothing, moving in with Lina and her American husband, bootlegger Jimmy Zizmo. Lefty works briefly on Ford's assembly line and in Jimmy's smuggling operation before opening his own speakeasy and later, with the end of Prohibition, legitimate, above-ground bar. Some years later, both couples conceive on the same night, and bear their children (Lina and Jimmy's daughter, Tessie, and Desdemona and Lefty's son, Milton) within weeks of each other.

Tessie and Milton, along with Milton's younger sister Zoe, grow up in the shadow of the Depression and World War II. Desdemona, sensing the growing attraction between Milton and Tessie, and afraid a cousin marriage will reveal her own secret, tries to find a suitable girl for Milton in Greektown, but is no more successful than she had been with Lefty back in Asia Minor. Despite Milton's stint in the Navy and Tessie's brief engagement to a promising young priest, the two fall in love and eventually marry, producing two children -- an older son, who our narrator calls only Chapter Eleven (in honor of his eventual effect on Lefty's chain of hot dog stands); and (so they think) a daughter, Calliope Helen.

The changes in the Stephanides family mirror those taking place around them in Detroit over the decades: some gradual, others seismic; some constructive, others foreboding. In the mid-1950s, as Chapter Eleven is born, Milton's Zebra Room and its neighborhood reflect the early signs of Detroit's decline. The success of the diner that takes its place allows Milt and Tessie to move to Indian Village, where the houses "had big yards, important walkways, picturesquely oxidizing cupolas, lawn jockeys (whose days were numbered), and burglar alarms (whose popularity was only just beginning). Fortunately, it's impressively large; unfortunately, Lefty, who's been pushed out of the restaurant biz, spends his days playing the numbers, until his savings are exhausted, and he and Desdemona forced to move into Tessie and Milton's attic. Later, Calliope's birth and the turn of the decade coincide with Lefty's first stroke, which leaves him still sharp, but speechless save a chalkboard. Seven years later, the diner goes up in smoke in the 1967 riots, and the insurance money allows the family to move again, this time, to the prestigious suburbs and private schools of Grosse Point.

Here, Callie finds herself isolated in more ways than one. Grosse Pointe, after all, is supposed to be a refuge for those white families fleeing Detroit and the spectre of busing; the Greek-American Stephanideses are far more ethnic than their average neighbors, and obtain their house only by paying cash. And in time, as her classmates begin to menstruate and develop breasts, Callie, too, grows ... different. As she explains,
"Beauty may always be a little bit freakish, but the year I turned thirteen I was becoming freakier than ever. Consider the yearbook. In the field hockey team photo, taken in the fall, I am on one knee in the front row. With my homeroom in the spring, I am stooping in the back. My face is shadowed with self-consciousness. (Over the years my perpetually perplexed expression would drive photographers to distraction. It ruined class photos and Christmas cards until, in the most widely published pictures of me, the problem was finally solved by blocking out my face altogether.)"
Gradually, but not altogether surprisingly, she embarks on a love affair ("wordless, blinkered, a nighttime thing, a dream thing") with her female best friend. However, even then, neither "the Object" nor Callie herself suspect anything unusual:
"Whatever it was that I was was best revealed slowly, in flattering light. Which meant not much light at all. Besides, that's the way it goes in adolescence. You try things out in the dark. You get drunk or stoned and extemporize. ...

"Through all this I made no lasting conclusions about myself. I know it's hard to believe, but that's the way it works. The mind self-edits. The mind airbrushes. It's a different thing to be inside a body than outside. From outside, you can look, inspect, compare. From inside there is no comparison. ...

"Why should I have thought I was anything other than a girl? Because I was attracted to a girl? That happened all the time. It was happening more than ever in 1974. It was becoming a national pastime. My ecstatic intuition about myself was now deeply suppressed. How long I would have managed to keep it down is anybody's guess. But in the end it wasn't up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we're born."
Ultimately, of course, Calliope/ Cal's bequest is revealed, with startling implications for the remainder of her/ his journey into and through adulthood.

In addition to being eminently readable, with a compelling, unusual storyline and fascinating, multi-layered characters, Middlesex also offers considerable literary merit (just in case the Pulitzer doesn't convince you, but my own amateur bibliophile's $0.02 will). Eugenides' descriptions of the Stephanides' physical and emotional landscapes are at once subtle and vivid. Witness his description of Lefty's stint at Ford's River Rouge plant, which evokes not just an auto assembly line, but the the vast intricacy of Cal's genetic code:
"Every fourteen seconds Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. This camshaft travels away on a conveyor, curling around the factory, through its clouds of metal dust, its acid fogs, until another worker fifty yards on reaches up and removes the camshaft, fitting it onto the engine block (twenty seconds). Simultaneously, other men are unhooking parts from adjacent conveyors -- the carbuerator, the distributor, the intake manifold -- and connecting them to the engine block. Above their bent heads, hige spindles pound steam-powered fists. No one says a word. ... Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. While other workers screw in the air filter (seventeen seconds) and attach the starter motor (twenty-six seconds) and put on the flywheel. At which point the engine is fnished and the last man sends it soaring away ...

"Except that he isn't the last man. There are other men below hauling the engine in, as a chassis rolls out to meet it. ... My grandfather sees only the bearing in front of him, his hands removing it, grinding it, and putting it back as another appears. The conveyor over his head extends back to the men who stamp out the bearings and load ingots into the furnaces; it goes back to the Foundry where the Negroes work, goggled against the infernal light and heat. ... The Foundry is the deepest recess of the Rouge, but the Line goes back farther than that. It extends outside to the hills of coal and cokel it goes to the river where the freighters dock to unload the ore, at which point the Line becomes the river itself, snaking up to the north woods until it reaches its source, which is the earth itself, the limestone and sandstone therein; and then the line leads back again, out of substrata to river to freighters and finally to the cranes, shovels, and furnaces where it is turned into molten steel and poured into molds, cooling and hardening into car parts -- the gears, drive shafts, and fuel tanks of 1922 Model T's. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. ... The Line isn't a single line but many, diverging and intersecting."
The novel is replete with unanswered questions, not just about gender, but about the very notion of dichotomy. Among these is whether it's our genes or our environments that shape our family histories and our selves. As Cal offers, reflecting on the night of his parents' conception, "Parents are supposed to pass down physical traits to their children, but it's my belief that all sorts of other things get passed down, too: motifs, scenarios, even fates." Later, he returns to this theme in more detail, describing the rare events of his own beginnings:
"The bedroom grows still. Inside my mother, a billion sperm swim upstream, males in the lead. They carry not only instructions about eye color, height, nose shape, enzyme production, microphage resistance, but a story, too. Against a black background they swim, a long white silken thread spinning itself out. The thread begins on a day two hundred and fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby's fifth chromosome. That baby passed the mutation on to her son, who passed it on to his two daughters, who passed it on to three of their children (my great-great-greats, etc.), until it finally ended up in the bodies of my grandparents. Hitching a ride, the gene descended a mountain and left a village behind. It got trapped in a burning city and escaped, speaking bad French. Crossing the ocean, it faked a romance, circled a ship's deck, and made love in a lifeboat. It had its braids cut off. It took a train to Detroit and moved into a house on Hurlbut; it consulted dream books and opened and underground speakeasy; it got a job at Temple No. 1 ... And then the gene moved on again, into new bodies ... It joined the Boy Scouts and painted its toenails red; it played 'Begin the Beguine' out the back window; it went off to war and stayed at home, watching newsreels; it took an entrance exam; posed like the movie magazines; received a death sentence and made a deal with St. Christopher; it dated a future priest and broke off an engagement; it was saved by a bosun's chair ... always moving ahead, rushing along, only a few more curves left in the track now, Annapolis and a submarine chaser ... until the biology gods knew this was their time, this was what they'd been waiting for, and as a spoon swung and a yia yia worried, my destiny fell into place ... On March 20, 1954, Chapter Eleven arrived and the biology gods shook their heads, nope, sorry ... But there was still time, everything was in place, the roller coaster was in free fall and there was no stopping it now, my father was seeing visions of little girls and my mother was praying to a Christ Pantocrator she didn't entirely believe in until finally -- right this minute! -- on Greek Easter, 1959, it's about to happen. The gene is about to meet its twin."
Cal also grapples with questions of agency; are we shaped entirely by our genes and our histories, or can we write our own stories? At first glance, the book leans toward the former. Cal remembers, as the adolescent Calliope, dreaming "the most futile human dream of all, the dream of writing a book worthy of joining their number, a one hundred and sixteenth Great Book with another long Greek name on the cover: Stephanides. That was when I was young and full of grand dreams. Now I've given up any hope of lasting fame or literary perfection. I don't care if I write a great book anymore, but just one which, whatever its flaws, will leave a record of my impossible life." Earlier in the text, we've already seen Desdemona's world shifting out of focus during World War II, and Milton's character forged by his early 1950s naval service. However, Cal does acknowledge that, beginning with Calliope's birth, she (later, he) does indeed play some part in shaping the world:
"I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever. I can't just sit back and watch from a distance anymore. From here on in, everything I'll tell you is colored by the subjective experience of being part of events. Here's where my story splits, divides, undergoes meiosis. Already the world feels heavier, now I'm a part of it. I'm talking about bandages and sopped cotton, the smell of mildew in movie theaters, and of all the lousy cats and their stinking litter boxes, of rain on city streets when the dust comes up and the old Italian men take their folding chairs inside. Up until now it hasn't been my world. Not my America. But here we are, at last."
In the second-to-last chapter, Cal describes an other-worldly, unsettling, yet lovely phenomenon allegedly common to 1970s Detroit -- pink nights:
"They happened every so often, depending on temperature and the level of chemicals in the air. When particulate matter in the atmosphere was sufficient, light from the ground got trapped and reflected back, and the entire Detroit sky would become the soft pink of cotton candy. It never got dark on pink nights, but the light was nothing like daytime. Our pink nights glowed with the raw luminescence of the night shift, of factories running around the clock. Sometimes the sky would become as bright as Pepto-Bismol, but more often it was a muted, a fabric-softener color. Nobody thought it was strange. Nobody said anything about it. We had all grown up with pink nights. They were not a natural phenomenon, but they were natural to us."
Unnatural, even disturbing, but also utterly compelling, a rare gem. Much like our narrator, or Middlesex itself.

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