Saturday, March 7, 2015

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Already latent inside me, like the future 120 mph serve of a tennis prodigy, was the ability to communicate between the genders, to see not with the monovision of one sex but with the stereoscope of both. ...

This, to me, is the most interesting and most accomplished aspect of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. In offering the reader his intersex narrator Calliope (or Cal) Stephanides, Eugenides has created something approaching the unique in the world of fiction.

… So that at the makaria after the funeral, I looked around the table at the Grecian Gardens and knew what everyone was feeling. ...

A narrator that, being both sexes, can authoritatively live inside the heads of both genders.

… Milton was beset by a storm of emotion he refused to acknowledge. He worried that if he spoke he might start to cry, and so said nothing throughout the meal, and plugged his mouth with bread. Tessie was seized with a desperate love for Chapter Eleven and me and kept hugging us and smoothing our hair, because children were the only balm against death. Sourmelina was remembering the day at Grand Trunk when she’d told Lefty that she would know his nose anywhere. Peter Tatakis was lamenting the fact that he would never have a widow to mourn his death. Father Mike was favorably reviewing the eulogy he’d given earlier in the morning, while Aunt Zo was wishing she had married someone like her father.

Mixing them so seamlessly in the mind’s eye of the reader that, eventually, we forget which gender is speaking to us, and allowing us to project the unique mixture of masculine and feminine that lives within our own gender identity onto the text.

There are moments in the text, usually at the beginning of chapters, when Cal, the adult Cal, not the child and teen whose story makes up the bulk of the novel, but the reminiscing narrator, living in Germany, who has been both a girl and a boy and who now has the sensibilities of both, speaks to us about the strange and bifurcated world that he sees and that everyone else takes for granted.

Leaving, riding through the streets, I was hailed by the intergalactic streetwalkers. In their Manga suits, their moon boots, they tossed their teased doll’s hair and called, Hallo-hallo. Maybe they would be just the thing for me. Remunerated to tolerate most anything. Shocked by nothing. And yet, as I pedaled past their lineup, their Strich, my feelings toward them were not a man’s. I was aware of a good girl’s reproachfulness and disdain, along with a perceptible, physical empathy. As they shifted their hips, hooking me with their darkly painted eyes, my mind filled not with images of what I might do to them, but with what it must be like for them, night after night, hour after hour, to have to do it. The Huren themselves didn’t look too closely at me. They saw my silk scarf, my Zenga pants, my gleaming shoes. They saw the money in my wallet. Hallo, they called. Hallo. Hallo.

And as these passages build up, you come to realize that Cal is the best of all possible protagonists, because he is someone that every reader can identify with. Masculine, feminine, or some idiosyncratic mixture of both, Cal is someone any reader can get behind, can root for, can empathize with, can see themselves in.

Or is he?

I’m quickly approaching the moment of discovery; of myself by myself, which was something I knew all along and yet didn’t know; and the discovery by poor, half-blind Dr. Philobosian of what he’d failed to notice at my birth and continued to miss during every annual physical thereafter; and the discovery by my parents of what kind of child they’d given birth to (answer: the same child, only different); and finally, the discovery of the mutated gene that had lain buried in our bloodline for two hundred and fifty years, biding its time, waiting for Ataturk to attack, for Hajienestis to turn into glass, for a clarinet to play seductively out a back window, until, coming together with its recessive twin, it started the chain of events that led up to me, here, writing in Berlin.

Because Cal’s story is a difficult one. It’s difficult from a pre-destined point-of-view, as shown above. Unless your mind bends that way, you’re likely to have trouble with the fatalism that clings to the narrative. At times, it is almost like the genes that make Cal the way he is are characters in the story--bending events and their trajectories towards the inevitability of Cal’s unlikely existence.

But primarily Cal’s story is difficult because of the way it puts our common understanding of gender through a meat grinder. The reminiscing adult Cal is one thing (a kind of wise uncle who wants to stretch our understanding but who is also willing to be gentle with our sensibilities) but the Callie turned Cal that greets us four-fifths of the way through the novel is something altogether different.

At restaurants I began to use the men’s room. This was perhaps the hardest adjustment. I was scandalized by the filth of men’s rooms, the rank smells and pig sounds, the grunting and huffing from the stalls. Urine was forever puddled on the floors. Scraps of soiled toilet paper adhered to the commodes. When you entered a stall, more often than not a plumbing emergency greeted you, a brown tide, a soup of dead frogs. To think that a toilet stall had once been a haven for me! That was all over now. I could see at once that men’s rooms, unlike the ladies’, provided no comfort. Often there wasn’t even a mirror, or any hand soap. And while the closeted, flatulent men showed no shame, at the urinals men acted nervous. They looked straight ahead like horses with blinders. ...

Cal’s collision of competing identities is a violent one--inevitably so, I suppose, given the culture he lives in--and we are drawn helplessly along with him for the highs and the lows. As with the vivid descriptions of his gag-inducing experiences in the men’s room, we are introduced to both the outright perverts and hidden angels that he encounters in the spaces between our socially-constructed gender roles and identities. Some, I believe, will be fascinated by this sideshow, while others, perhaps too many, will struggle with accepting it as an allowable construct for drama and fiction.

But throughout it, the laser-like insights into the things that make some of us men and some of us women remain.

... I understood at those times what I was leaving behind: the solidarity of a shared biology. Women know what it means to have a body. They understand its difficulties and frailties, its glories and pleasures. Men think their bodies are theirs alone. They tend them in private, even in public.

In the end, Eugenides tries to bring to all home.

After I returned from San Francisco and started living as a male, my family found that, contrary to popular opinion, gender was not all that important. My change from girl to boy was far less dramatic than the distance anybody travels from infancy to adulthood. In most ways I remained the person I’d always been. Even now, though I live as a man, I remain in essential ways Tessie’s daughter. I’m still the one who remembers to call her every Sunday. I’m the one she recounts her growing list of ailments to. Like any good daughter, I’ll be the one to nurse her in her old age. We still discuss what’s wrong with men; we still, on visits back home, have our hair done together. Bowing to the changing times, the Golden Fleece now cuts men’s hair as well as women’s. (And I’ve finally let dear old Sophie give me that short haircut she always wanted.)

The message seems to be that we don’t need to be strictly male or strictly female. Like Cal, we can be one, or both, or neither. As long as we have people to love, and people to love us, everything else will take care of itself.

The Writer Peeking Through

I love catching little snippets like this.

From an early age they knew what little value the world placed in books, and so didn’t waste their time with them. Whereas I, even now, persist in believing that these black marks on white paper bear the greatest significance, that if I keep writing I might be able to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Although I have tried.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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