As I strolled into Starbucks with Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex in my grasp, the barista asked me, "What's that book like?" I mulled over his question, then brightly responded: "Best book I have ever read about a hermaphrodite."
Funny, my barista doesn't chat me up any more.
Baristas beware! Now, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, who has selected Middlesex as the latest selection for her book club, tens of thousands of new readers will be introduced to Eugenides' quirky tale. Yes, there is much more than ambiguous genitalia in this romp through several generations of Greek intermarriage and its consequences. But center stage is taken by Calliope Stephanides, born as a girl in 1960, but reinventing herself (himself?) as teenage boy in the mid-1970s. Around Calliope’s remarkable story, Eugenides weaves dozens of characters and sub-plots into a dazzling narrative.
As Eugenides demonstrated in his debut novel The Virgin Suicides, he is capable of bringing a light touch to even the darkest subjects. The story of Middlesex, when presented in stark outline, is a tragic one. In addition to Calliope’s gender confusion, the reader confronts ethnic cleansing, underworld crime, race riots, poverty, fatal accidents and various miscarriages of the medical profession. Yet this summary presents a misleading sense of the ambiance of the book, which moves ahead with a lilting, often humorous tone strikingly at odds with the tale presented.
Eugenides begins his novel in Anatolia where Calliope’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, fall in love in the midst of Greco-Turkish violence that forces them to abandon their native land. During their voyage by ship to the United States, the couple get married, and try to forget the inconvenient fact that they are, in fact, brother and sister. The Stephanides settle in Detroit, where their son, Milton, marries a second cousin, setting the genetic stage for Calliope’s arrival. Here is her dilemma in a nutshell: the chromosomes say male — Calliope has both an X and a Y – but the physical apparatus looks (more or less) female.
This sharp contrast between the tone and topic of Middlesex has disturbed some readers. Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in The New York Review of Books, wanted more pathos from Eugenides, and attacked Middlesex for its “pervasive sense of superficiality.” Other critics took the opposite tack, praising the novel’s comic aspects, and hailing it as a modern-day Tristam Shandy. That a single book can inspire such radically different interpretations testifies to the complexity and multi-layered textures of Eugenides’ epic novel.
But readers who come to Middlesex because of the peculiarities of the story, will remember it for the quality of its writing. Eugenides is a brilliant stylist, full of clever asides, striking metaphors, and memorable turns of phrase. The prose starts strong, but gets even better as the novel progresses. About three hundred pages into the book, Eugenides launches into a trope on the hairiness of Southern European women – “Sing Muse of Greek ladies and their battle against unsightly hair! Sing of depilatory creams and tweezers! Of bleach and beeswax,” etc., etc. – that is as funny and inspired as anything I have read in a long time. And though he soon moves on to other topics, his writing stays at a remarkably high level for the next thirty or so pages. When he is at the top of his game like this, Eugenides demands respect as one of the finest writers of his generation.
Now Oprah’s club will have its chance at this rich work. The attention has already pushed Middlesex up to the sixth position on Amazon’s best seller list. God bless Oprah for continuing to promote quality fiction at a time when newspapers are slashing their book review pages and publishers are retrenching. The smart money says that, after a taste of Eugenides’ great writing, more than a few readers will turn off the television and start checking out the action on the library shelves.