A couple years ago I read a novel by Jeffery Eugenides called The Virgin Suicides. It was a slender and beautifully crafted eulogistic little thing, aching with nostalgia and sorrow, leavened by wry wit and a clarity of tone that immediately set it apart as something special. In short, I liked it. I was, of course, curious to see more of the author’s work. Turns out, however, that Eugenides is quite a slow writer; he’s only put out three books in the last fifteen years. On top of that, his latest book The Marriage Plot, received a rather tepid reception. So I held off.
But there was still that middle child waiting for me. Middlesex, a sprawling epic that promised to chart the destiny of a family of Greek immigrants, as told by their youngest, an odd creature who shifted genders. From the sound of it, it seemed almost like magical realism. I guess I was expecting a character something like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Anyway, it was a tempting premise, touching on many subjects of great interest to myself, but it seemed like there was a higher than average possibility that it might disappoint, despite the mountains of critical acclaim. So I kept putting it off.
Well, I’ve finally read it. As I suspected, it was a disappointment. Only disappointing in some ways, however. In others, it was also an unexpected pleasure.
So, what is Middlesex anyway? It’s an epic, no doubt of that. Very much in the Victor Hugo/Charles Dickens mold, where the novel moves through several distinct phases (in previous cases a byproduct of serialization, these days more due to conscious stylistic choice) and charts a great many characters over a great deal of time.
We begin in the early twentieth century with an incestuous romance, a slaughtered family, a flight from a ransacked city and a desperate reinvention by sea voyage.
Okay, actually we don’t quite start there. First we’re introduced to our narrator, Cal, a middle-aged man living in Germany. Then we flash back to Cal’s parents, and his grandmother’s failure to accurately predict his gender while in utero, then flash back a bit further to spend a good chunk of time devoted to Cal’s father’s whacky scheme to ensure that he has a girl by timing his marital copulation to coincide with just the right moment in his wife’s cycle. Then we get to the other stuff. Within the first fifty pages, we’re absolutely sprawled all over the place, and the time-line is pinging like a heart rate monitor.
That said, all of this stuff pretty much works. Eugenides is a master craftsman when it comes to prose, and he writes with such deftness that I never once realized that what I was reading was batshit crazy. It was only later, looking back, that it struck me as off somehow. It’s all tied together by Cal’s narration, which serves to unite the disparate narratives and to level the tone of the piece. And that narration… oof. I hope you like dry wit and faintly embarrassed distance from your narrator, because you’re gonna get all you can stand. All the subject matter which sounds so very salacious when spelled out as I did up above comes across in this book as being rather flat and uneventful.
Sex, violence, murder, incest, rape, mutation, impregnation, family secrets, pornography, prostitution, riots, gender reassignment surgeries, bootlegging, car chases, car crashes, childhood lesbian romances, drugs, gambling, war, more war, destruction, racism, sexism, classism and death. All of those things figure prominently in Middlesex, but it’s all done in such a maddeningly light and removed tone that you wouldn’t even notice how crazy it is. It feels often as if Eugenides can’t bring himself to address the subject matter he’s chosen to tackle, and has to *cough cough* his way past all the yucky stuff.
Add to that the fact that Cal’s childhood, i.e. the real meat of the story and the thing that this book is supposedly about, doesn’t actually come up until the last third of the novel! Cal spends more time as the narrator than he/she does as an actual character. We’ve basically got three novellas here, each told in their own slightly different style. The grandparents get their story, the parents get their story, and then Cal finally gets his/her story. To be honest, any one of these probably would have worked on their own, and might even have worked better.
That said, there was a ton to love and admire here, despite the frustrations.
The sense of place is amazing. Eugenides renders with absolute precision the stink of Henry Ford’s automotive factories, the chaos of burning Smyrna, the uneasy tranquility of an upper class girls’ academy, the fury of the race riots in Detroit and the sleaze of a California peep show. The strong sense of place is really what grounds the story, given how fluidly the time-line shifts. We always know right where we are, and just what it feels like. Masterfully done.
Also, I must mention that, while I think the story would have been better if the focus had been shifted closer to Cal’s life, I was never once bored reading about the parents or grandparents. The characters come to life very vividly, and their struggles and hopes and fears always manage to feel genuine and effecting. I was moved to tears on two occasions by the simple beautiful sorrow of the thing.
Basically, this is a huge pile of brilliant scenes, one after the other. It’s only in the connections that Eugenides could have done with some improvement.
Overall, this is a fascinating and compelling read. I only get down on it because I know it could have been a true masterpiece if it had gone a little further. That said, everybody should still read this. It’s a heck of a book. I dare you to pick it up and not be swept away by it.
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My latest book, A Door in the Mirror, is available now via Smashwords and Amazon, available in any ebook format.