Read from September 7th to December 7th 2016
It took me quite a lot to finish Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (jeez, three months as I see from my Goodreads counter!), although it was not because it bored me, far from it, but because I chose to read it during my breaks at work and lately I didn’t have many L.
There were so many interesting things in this novel, covering some important aspects of any narrative, such as themes, structure, characters, styles and so on, and in each of them it could be found at least one such fresh approach that I honestly don’t know where to begin. Therefore I’ll begin with the beginning, with the title, that is.
Let’s see: Middlesex is the name of the street where the narrator grew up and metonymically of the house of her/ his parents in this street; it is the name of the book and metaphorically of the main theme in this book – intersexuality; significantly, for the author does not acknowledge autobiographical references, it is also the name of the street in Grosse Pointe where the latter grew up.
It seems to me that just from the beginning there is this swinging between notions, the first one, between reality and fiction (the real street and the physical book with its title versus the narrator’s street and the theme in the book), inviting others, this time within fiction: immigration/ American dream, nature/ nurture, male/ female, family/ incest, tragedy/ comedy and so on) with the key-word that reunites them: “middle”. The structure of the novel, looking like a DNA double spiral, follows a subtle dialectic that keeps deploying the plot and intertwining its two layers: Stephanides’ family saga on one hand and Callie’s arrested bildungsroman on the other hand. The pattern is carefully weaved on an obvious canvas of Greek mythology by a narrator who warns the reader in an exaggerated rhapsodic voice always tempered by soft postmodern irony (“Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too.”) that the journey that follows is beyond the usual regressus ad uterum, for the discovery of the self truly begins with the genetic ancestry:
Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother’s own midwestern womb.
This to and fro is present also in the narrative timelines, the beginning of a spiral being the end of the other: here is the journey of a gene towards the narrator, from past to present, this microscopic unexpected Ulysses traveling over nine generations (of course) to fulfill its destiny. And here is the journey of the adult narrator towards the gene, from present to past directly into the maternal womb where the big date has taken place. Of course, the timelines are not linear but sinuous and often superposed, because this travel in the past is an opportunity to become your past (hence the ability of the narrator to read the thoughts of his ancestors, since he is any single one of them):
You get older, you puff on the stairs, you enter the body of your father. From there it’s only a quick jump to your grandparents, and then before you know it you’re time-traveling. In this life we grow backwards. It’s always the gray-haired tourists on Italian buses who can tell you something about the Etruscans.
The family saga reminded me of Marquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, where the final product of Buendia family is a pigtailed monster. In Middlesex, the magic realism is replaced by hysterical realism, the South-American superstitions by the Greek mythology and Macondo by Detroit, but the succession of the generations, because of the same problem – interfamilial sex, leads to the same result: a hermaphrodite who at a certain point identify himself with a monster. Like the Buendia, the first Eugenides of our story, Lefty and Desdemona, brother and sister, leave their village during the Greek-Turkish war in 1922, and go to America. On the boat named Giulia (which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Line and – this was fun for me to discover – still had a slate that boasted modern conveniences… in Romanian: “lumina electrica, ventilatie et comfortu cel mai mare”) the two marry, thus creating the circumstances for the fifth chromosome to manifest itself:
…in my grandparents’ case, the circling worked like this: as they paced around the deck the first time, Lefty and Desdemona were still brother and sister. The second time, they were bride and bridegroom. And the third, they were husband and wife.
There is a rich, interesting background of this family story that includes war scenes, immigration check-ups, riots, prohibition, racial and ethnical conflicts, and so on.
On the other hand, Calliope/ Cal’s story, which some critics considered less remarkable and not blending enough with the family story, has come background mainly the Greek mythology of “monsters”, for it alludes not only to the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus, but also to Tiresias, the man who experienced being a woman, to Persephone, who lived six months under and six months on the earth, to the androgyne that was the human being before the gender separation, to Oedipus and his incestuous relationship, to the Minotaur, offspring of a zoophilic relationship and so on. These permanent mythological allusions are not at all strenuous or demanding, on the contrary they have the unexpected effect to defuse the tragedy, by giving it a ludic aspect:
In the late autumn of 1923, minotaurs haunted my family. To Desdemona they came in the form of children who couldn’t stop bleeding, or who were covered with fur. Zizmo’s monster was the well-known one with green eyes.
Now, let’s recap. An undecided gene leads to middle-sex, an uprooting translates the American dream into ethnical stupor, the old polemics nature versus nurture remain somehow ambiguous even though with a strong penchant for nature, the family is united and divided by incest but the tragedy of all this is tempered by the light, slightly comic tone of the narrator who accepts his fate phlegmatically and with a keen eye for all the absurd of the family intricate relationships:
Sourmelina Zizmo (née Papadiamandopoulos) wasn’t only my first cousin twice removed. She was also my grandmother. My father was his own mother’s (and father’s) nephew. In addition to being my grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty were my great-aunt and -uncle. My parents would be my second cousins once removed and Chapter Eleven would be my third cousin as well as my brother.
In fact, where is our author most brilliant if I am permitted the pleonastic emphasis, is when he keeps a joking tone for serious matters and a serious face for joking ones, like in this excellent sketch of father Mike:
His shortness had a charitable aspect to it, as though he had given away his height.
Therefore, the two masks, the laughing and the sad one, are blend in one final and most pregnant coincidentia oppositorum that leaves the reader with a peculiar but unforgettable metaphoric image of the writer, part androgynous, part chimera, who borrows so many identities and voices that in the end becomes a mythological figure himself:
The mulberry tree had no leaves. The wind swept over the crusted snow into my Byzantine face, which was the face of my grandfather and of the American girl I had once been. I stood in the door for an hour, maybe two. I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next.