Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This was my second time reading Middlesex, and I have to admit I approached it with some trepidation, wondering if I would enjoy it as much the second time, if I would be as swept up in the story, if, indeed, it would hold up.

And it did. While I wasn't swept away in the dizzying rush of plowing through it (harder to achieve when it's a bathroom book,) I still thoroughly enjoyed the depth of the story, the wide cast of characters, the tour through Detroit history, the allusions to classical literature. (I caught two - there were probably more. The obvious one to Homer at the beginning, and a definite allusion to the last line of Jane Eyre at the end of the chapter. Which was much better done than the attempt to make the same sort of allusion at the end of The Gate at the Stairs, which you'll remember I absolutely hated.)

Middlesex, if you read the back cover, is the story of Cal, formerly Calliope. Who is raised as a girl, but at some point discovers her genitalia are more ambiguous, and eventually decides to live as man - this isn't a spoiler, the adult Cal narrates the novel. But it isn't just that, although Cal's story is fascinating. It's the story of three generations, of leaving Europe, of arriving in America, of negotiating the changing landscape of Detroit over decades, culminating in the growing up of Calliope and her brother, Chapter Eleven, in the 1960s.

It's the story of grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, who left in the middle of a war, and tried to find a place. (The section on working at the Ford motor plant, and their intrusions into workers' lives made me livid.) It's the story of their son, Milton, and his wife, Tessie. And their two children.

While Calliope/Cal is at the centre of the story, making this a generational novel was a brilliant move. It places Cal in a context, in a family, in the midst of a cast of characters, instead of being a novel about an isolated individual and individual struggles. Stories do, after all, always take place in context, and by choosing to root this story of indeterminate biological sex in a wider sweep of character and history, Eugenides adds depth and place to a main character who is trying to make sense of their life, trying to make sense of where they are and who they are.

Eugenides is also not trying to tell the story of a community - indeed, Cal writes of shying away from the intersex community, although he's also unsure why, or if that's the right decision. It is the story of one person, one experience, and makes no claims to definitive or universal. But the particular, strange as it sometimes is, manages to reach beyond that and be accessible (though sometimes challenging) to much more than one person, one medical condition, and one life.

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