Updated on August 5, 2015
26. ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides
This is a story of misplaced desire and a single genetic mutation. ‘Middlesex’ charts the progression of this mutation through several generations of a family – Greeks, who flee to America following the war with Turkey – and its eventual manifestation in one member of the family, Cal/Calliope. Following generations of inbreeding, Cal is born a hermaphrodite.
Eugenides’ style reminded me of Salman Rushdie; the prose is matter of fact and flowing, and the book’s multi-generational focus is quite reminiscent of ‘Midnight’s Children’. Members of the Stephanides family are present at major events throughout history – the Detroit uprisings, the formation of the Nation of Islam – and the number of historical coincidences really gives the whole story a feeling of predestination.
I also liked the narrative voice. Cal is the narrator but, because for the much of the book he is describing things that happened before he was born, he uses a certain amount of artistic license. And he owns up to it. There are times when he lets the reader know that he wasn’t there, but he is openly manipulating the story to make it richer and more symbolic.
Ultimately this book is more of a tapestry than a linear story. There are parallels drawn between the big and the small – major historical events and similar upheavals within the family – and the past and the present. Circularity is also hugely important: history repeats itself, generation by generation, as brothers fall for sisters and cousins fall for cousins. There are tales of incest throughout the book but, because the reader feels so strongly for the characters, they serve not as a judgement but rather a demonstration of the complexities of desire. I love books like this, where it’s not just about progressing the plot but weaving together every element beautifully.
“From an early age we knew what little value the world placed in books, and so didn’t waste their time with them. Whereas I, even now, persist in believing that these black marks on white paper bear the greatest significance, that if I keep writing I might be able to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar.”
I read an interview with Eugenides in The Paris Review and wanted to read this ever since. When I spotted this on a book stall in town, then, it was a no-brainer.
If you liked my review, why not read the book and let me know what you think?