By Jeffery Eugenides
I feel like my reading as of late has been a little incestuous. Middlesex is the second book in four that takes place in part or entirely in Greece (the other being Captain Corelli's Mandolin) and it is the second book in a row that features incest as a predominant theme in the narrative. Hell, it's the second novel in a row that has a character with the name Stark. If you have just discovered this blog recently, I assure you this is completely coincidental, but perhaps apt given the subject matter of Jeffery Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize winning novel about hermaphrodism.
Middlesex is perhaps the only novel in the history of novels were the protagonist is not a person so much as a gene. A recessive gene. The novel follows the gene from a small Greek village in Turkey in the early twentieth century through to Detroit the middle of the 1970s via three generations of a Greek-turned-American family with a history of incestuous relations. These tragically rendered relationships allow for the recessive gene for hermaphrodism, which has lain dormant within the family for a few centuries, to manifest itself in the third generation via a little girl named Calliope.
At once, the novel follows the traditional pace and style of a Salman Rushdie novel. Tracing a family lineage back a couple of generations in order to get a strong feel for the family and where the protagonist comes from. By the time Calliope makes her entrance into the narrative, the reader is more than familiar with her/his entire family. I always like this sort of novel. I feel like part of the family by the end and it gives Calliope a richer texture than she would have in a less epic style.
Jeffery Eugenides does a stellar job with this material and has written an achingly beautiful and often hilarious story about transformations. He not only tackles the obvious transgender focus but also secondary transformations: familial, social, economic, historical and philosophical that occur within Calliope's family, her surroundings and in America in general. All sorts of other incidental transformations make Middlesex a compelling read, worthy of the recognition it has received. He is true to his themes without bashing the reader's head in with his message. What I especially liked was Eugenides' handling of gender issues. He raises all sorts of questions concerning the traditional notion of gender without resorting to bullshit social science definitions and theories or political rhetoric. He treats his characters with a measure of humanism and empathy that few, if any, writers would be able to muster with such difficult subject matter.
I have not read The Virgin Suicides but it has been on my radar for years. From what I understand it is a pretty superb book in its own right. If so, Jeffery Eugenides has firmly established himself as one of the best writers working in America today and Middlesex is a novel that is not afraid to stretch the bounds and discuss issues that are often seen as uncomfortable or taboo. He gets to the core of his characters without mincing words, a rare talent this day in age.
Middlesex is not for the conservative at heart. People wit rigid ideas of social values and gender divisions should shy away unless that are open to some very different ideas. It's a shame, though. They'd be missing out on one hell of a great book.