Friday, January 15, 2010

Boys Don't Cry

If an author takes ten years to write a follow-up to his debut novel, even one as stunning as “The Virgin Suicides”, then the most devoted of fans might be concerned that he had lost his way. However, rest assured that Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex” was well worth the wait, in the same way that Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” and Donna Tartt’s “The Little Friend” rewarded their readers’ patience. Published in 2002, “Middlesex” is a fabulously exuberant book that deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Rich in character, history and humour, this larger-than-life tale of the Stephanides family will haunt you long after the dénouement.

The story grabs you right off the bat with an intriguing 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.

Yes, that’s right, the book’s protagonist and narrator, Calliope Stephanides is not like other girls: she’s a hermaphrodite. Raised as a girl, Callie discovers that she’s actually a boy during her teenage years – at least from the perspective of her chromosomes. What’s in her jeans is affected by her genes - the "Jean Genie" of her times. Unlike Gore Vidal’s abrasive gender bender in “Myra Breckinridge and Myron”, Callie is a sweet girl who just happens to grow up to become Cal, a 41-year-old bearded man. Although the condition is, to say the least, confusing for our hero/heroine, it’s nothing new under the sun:

There have been hermaphrodites around forever, Cal. Forever. Plato said that the original human being was a hermaphrodite. Did you know that? The original person was two halves, one male, one female. Then these got separated. That's why everybody's always searching for their other half. Except for us. We've got both halves already.

"Men who stare at goatees"

Although the book’s title is a reference to the Stephanides’ family address in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, it is more to do with what it means to occupy the middle ground, not just the complex state of mind (and body) between male and female, but also Greek and American, and even past and present. Callie’s attempts to find the balance between her female and male halves is matched by her family’s efforts to reconcile their Greek heritage with their adopted American culture. In this sense, “Middlesex” is two books in one: a coming of age novel and a (Big Fat Greek) family saga. In fact, it’s also something of a detective novel, as Cal explores his past to explain how he came to be this way (no, that way), so much so that Cal’s over-active imagination allows him to be a witness to his own conception, just like Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”.

However, there’s nothing fair to middling about this book. No, it’s an ambitious novel that spans three generations and two continents, managing to blend the many different family affairs into a captivating whole. It may be an epic, but it’s also a set of intensely personal memoirs, as Callie delves deeply into the sprawling history of her relatives to understand who she is.

"On your bike"

The investigation takes us all the way back to the war between Greece and Turkey in 1922, when we first meet Callie’s (incestuous) paternal grandparents. Lefty Stephanides and his sister Desdemona were orphaned during the conflict and only escaped the Great Fire of Smyrna by emigrating to America. Their village had been so ravaged by the hostilities that only two women remained as marriage candidates for Lefty, neither of which appealed to him, so he decided to follow his heart and marry his sister Desdemona after an amusing courtship on the sea journey, when the siblings pretended to be strangers who had just met.

They eventually reach the United States and move to Detroit, where they stay at the home of their cousin Lina and her husband Jimmy. By an incredible coincidence, the two women become pregnant on the same night, Desdemona giving birth to a son, Milton, while Lina has a little girl, Tessie. In another twist in the Stephanides’ family fortunes, Milton marries Tessie, his second cousin – a union that would prove fateful for the gene pool when they had two children of their own. First on the scene was a boy, curiously named Chapter Eleven, so Tessie was desperate for a daughter for the second child, timing her love making to produce the desired result. In 1960 they got what they wanted when Calliope was born, the half-blind family doctor failing to spot any anomaly. Equally amazing was the parents’ inability to notice anything different about their beautiful baby girl, though Callie later finds it hard to believe that Milton and Tessie were ever capable of anything:

Is there anything as incredible as the love story of your own parents? Anything as hard to grasp as the fact that these two over-the-hill players, permanently on the disabled list, were once in the starting lineup?

"On me head, son"

Thus, the rogue gene began its journey with the unnatural coupling of Callie’s grandparents in a village on Mount Olympus, the mythological home of the Greek gods, and eventually flowered in her unfortunate body nearly forty years later, when the shameful secret hidden in the family’s past caught up with her. A loser in the Greek version of “The Generation Game”, you can imagine poor Callie saying, “Not nice to see you, to see you … not nice!”

In this way, Callie is born with a rare genetic anomaly called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, an affliction that usually only affects inbred communities. Although some may shy away from a person that is not “normal”, Callie is portrayed as a highly sympathetic individual – a character that is achingly, recognizably human who manages to overcome her own Greek tragedy with humour and sang-froid, as she gains your acceptance and wins your affection. Eugenides tenderly describes her plight without being overly sentimental, so you don’t just feel sorry for her, but actively want her to overcome her challenges.

"A class act"

From certain angles, “Middlesex” could be considered as an addition to the many stories of adolescent angst, albeit one of the strangest (less coming of age, more coming into her own), as it taps into the usual anxieties and uncertainties of the teenage years, when nervous excitement at new experiences combines with a dread of humiliation. During this most awkward phase of her life, Callie’s youthful fear of being different is exacerbated when she fails to develop into womanhood at the same rate as her classmates, remaining flat chested and waiting in vain for her first period. She first begins to question her sexuality when she falls for her best friend, the magnificently named Obscure Object of Desire (shades of the mysterious teenage attractions in “The Virgin Suicides”), but it is only when she sneaks a peek at a doctor’s report that she discovers that she has the genes of a male. Worse still, although she’s genetically a boy, as she has been brought up as a girl, the medical advice is to perform a “procedure” (effectively a castration) to definitively make her female.

In fact, transformation is Eugenides’ central conceit, a belief that everything – and everyone – is on the point of turning into something else. Girls become women, boys become girls, Greeks become Americans and even silkworms become silk (as part of Desdemona’s sericulture). Although “Middlesex” owes a great deal to the ancient Greek poets, it has been influenced at least as much by the Romans (particularly Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”), as acknowledged by the author: “Latin literature, Ovid and Virgil, was the first writing I studied line by line. These were epics, sometimes epics of transformation, and when I look at my work I realise that influenced me enormously”. You can see this with the parallels drawn between Callie’s double identity and the relationship of her grandparents, who transform themselves from siblings to lovers after they leave the Greek islands.

"Aaah, we fade to grey"

One of Eugenides’ great strengths is his ability to find a voice that is “capable of telling epic events in the third person and psychosexual events in the first person. It had to render the experience of a teenage girl and an adult man, or an adult male-identified hermaphrodite”. He elegantly achieves this, managing to switch between Callie and Cal without disrupting the balance of the narrative, by giving both sides of the coin some qualities that are easily transferable between genders, such as intelligence, insight and humour.

In Greek mythology, Calliope was the muse of heroic poetry, but the protagonist’s name is not the only way that Eugenides incorporates the Greek imprint into his modern tale. Apart from generally viewing America’s growing pains through the eyes of the Greek Orthodox community, there are references to the failed presidential campaign by Michael Dukakis (the Greek-American JFK), while the aunt who prefers the company of women is coyly described within the family as “one of those women they named the island after”. You might think that it’s all Greek to Eugenides, as the Greek-American writer was also raised in Detroit and then moved to Berlin, just like his hero, but obviously it’s only autobiographical up to a point …

"Behind bars"

Detroit is almost a character in the book, as its native son captures the Motor City’s sad beauty and sense of danger with all the loving attention that James Joyce bestowed on Dublin in “Ulysses”. Callie’s struggles somehow become a metaphor for the city, as Eugenides paints an affectionate, but exasperated look at what has become of urban America and its ambitious dreams:

Planning is for the world's great cities, for Paris, London, and Rome, for cities dedicated, at some level, to culture. Detroit, on the other hand, was an American city and therefore dedicated to money, and so design had given way to expediency.

The chase for the mighty Dollar is epitomised by the description of Lefty’s dehumanising job on the Ford production line, which also reflects the theme of transformation running through the book:

At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has passed down: we've all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of 100 kinds.

"A Detroit Piston"

The book is full of such clever insights, but it is not afraid of sentiment, so Eugenides regards the most ridiculous members of the Stephanides family with unreserved sympathy. The character development is superb with each of the many people we encounter in this multi-generational saga forging a unique personality that encourages the reader to really empathise with them. It’s a broad church, featuring entrepreneurs, charlatans, hippies, lesbians, corrupt priests, burlesque performers and even housewives, but Eugenides’ gift is taking characters on the edge of society and making us see ourselves in them. There is an abundance of warmth and humour in these eccentrics, but as with all Greek classics, tragedy often waits around the corner, though there is one twist that very few will anticipate.

The book is set against the turbulent history of 20th century America, which not only perfectly captures the confusion and emotions of the time, but also beautifully fills out the features of the locations and their communities. There is a wealth of detail here, as Eugenides observes the key changes affecting the American Dream: Prohibition, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Civil Rights movement, race riots and the Vietnam War. This solid foundation of historical fact incorporates so much period detail that it helps make the core story believable, despite all the absurdities and the numerous flights of fancy, including a keen ear for the dialogue of the time, such as when Chapter Eleven explains his refusal to use deodorant during his hippie phase: “I’m a human. This is what humans smell like”.

"Meet the new Geography teacher"

As well as tragedy, Eugenides is proficient at finding a gently ironic humour in situations or even names, such as Callie’s brother Chapter Eleven, which refers to his subsequent bankruptcy. The combination of dry, dark comedy with a shimmering nostalgia is reminiscent of his first book “The Virgin Suicides”, which also managed to find some laughs in the blackest of subjects, namely five girls from the same family all committing suicide. Of course, Eugenides could have taken the easy option of making cheap jokes about sexual identity in “Middlesex”, but he avoids any temptation to deal with the subject in a voyeuristic fashion, instead handling the material (sorry) with great delicacy. He opts for a sweetly comic – and ultimately more persuasive – approach, which tries “not to make something mundane strange, but rather, something that is somewhat more freaky, more normal”.

The point is that every human being, not just Callie, is subject to the whims and caprices of fate. However unique each of us may be, in reality we are the culmination of a random journey through social history and genetics; the product of other people’s decisions, desires and destinies. The archaic Greek notion of fate has been supplanted by the fashionable theme of genetics, but the song remains the same, as Callie well understands:

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.

She understood that her heart operated on its own instructions, that she had no control over it or, indeed, anything else.

"Lean on me"

Other members of her family are less aware of this important truth. In their pursuit of love and success, they too often forget the lessons of their Greek forbears. Time and again, these loveable characters attempt to cheat fate with predictable, sometimes tragic, but always engaging results.

Ultimately, I think that the book’s essential message is the importance of finding your own identity and learning to become comfortable with that, as Cal does when he first escapes to San Francisco and then Berlin. In a poignant moment of self-realisation, he refuses to be something that he isn’t:

I live my own life and nurse my own wounds. It's not the best way to live. But it's the way I am. It's amazing what you can get used to.

Can you see me? All of me? Probably not. No one ever really has. We're all made up of many parts, other halves. Not just me.

Identity is something that everyone struggles with, so Cal’s struggle is not only tender and honest, but is also relevant to all of us. Eugenides has taken the greatest mystery of all (Who are we? Where do we come from?) and crafted an answer of sorts that is both illuminating and imaginative. Funnier, more compassionate and even more educational than the Hilary Swank vehicle “Boys Don’t Cry”, which tackled a similar subject, “Middlesex” is a triumphant affirmation of love, the human spirit and the right of everyone to lead the life of their own choosing, even if that means having it both ways.

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