After college, I often found myself wandering through bookstores aimlessly. Without a reading list I didn’t really know where to start. Enter the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

 

The benefit of being so young is that time has oft distilled the opinions on the literary powerhouses turned Pulitzer winners. Published in 2002, Middlesex was mostly received with praise, but sixteen years worth of arguments about the self indulgence and emotional stuntedness of Eugenides’ narrator still linger in the existing criticism of the epic story. In my opinion, most of the criticsm ignores the inate lightheartedness laced into the somewhat tragic tale of how Cal, once Calliope (named aptly for the Greek muse of epic poetry), came to be a man and not the woman he was raised to be.

In a diluted form, Middlesex is a discussion about intersexuality on the grand stage of the immigrant’s journey through American history, lobbed up by a middle-aged white male graduate from Stanford’s literary master’s program. However, to step away from the groan-producing possibilities inherant in those facts of Cal Stephanides’ storyone must first understand the genesis of Eugenides’ expansive work.

In an interview with Oprah.com (Oprah launched Middlesex to top-seller status at the time of its release) on the grueling years of writing the over 500 paged novel, Eugenides describes how a narrator uniquely embibed with male and female perspective began as an idea in high school. In studying Greek mythology, Tiresias, one of history’s more famous gender-bending characters came to a young Eugenides’ attention.

The story goes that Tiresias had experience life and sex as a man and a woman, leading to Zeus and Hera asking him whether men or women enjoy sex more. He’s quoted as answering: “If the pleasures of love be as ten, then three times threee belongs to the woman. The rest belongs to the man.” In response to Tiresias’ answer, Eugenides says: “This was important information for a 15-year-old boy. (I knew, then and there, not to expect much in life. “Might as well become a writer,” I thought to myself.)”

I believe the dark humor laced into the novel and the very bones of Cal himself is reflected in Eugenides’ flippant answer. In her review for The Brooklyn Rail, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow speaks against the pushiness of the narrator’s humor, calling the book jokie instead of funny. Cal’s sense of humor is central to how he experiences the world. The moments that inspire laughter in each of us are just as important as those that inspire indignation and pain and heartache – in many ways, we learn what Cal values through the things he and isn’t willing to make light of. Reading his dark humor as a ploy by the author to simply entertain the audience completely negates values esconced in the dry commentary of a man looking back on the circumstances which created his life.

For example, in his adult life while on a date with a woman, Cal tells the reader:

“After a certain age, people should keep their clothes on,” I said, or something like that. When in doubt, I resort to mildly conservative or British-sounding pronouncements.

Read merely as a joke for the reader the moment is a light-hearted jab propping up the dry wit of the 41 year old, diplomat Cal becomes. Read as a reflection of the discomfort Cal’s been forced to feel in his body, the humor is a deflection against a world pushing against Cal’s emotioanl boundaries in regards to exposure and a sign of the lasting scars left by doctor’s who wished for the intersex man to conform to one physical sexuality.

In another review,  Daniel Mendelsohn posits that Eugenides’ mixture of the epic tale of Cal’s paternal grandparents (who the reader comes to learn are secretly brother and sister) was originally a novel entirely separate from the story of Calliope (named for the Greek muse of epic stories) turned Cal. Eugenides blatantly denies that idea in his own explanation of the evolution of Lefty and Desdomona’s harrowing tale of isolation and death and freedom.

In doing medical research on intersexuality to create a protagonist with both male and female perspectives, Eugenides discovered the 5-alpha-reducatse deficiency syndrome, a gene for hemophradism born out of isolated populations prone to inbreeding. The tender, yet incestuous love of the novels’ patriarchal family then translates as a mixture of circumstantial and cultural kismet that inflates the novel across time and distance, rather than a fractured approach of two separate, yet interesting ideas.

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If I sound as if I am Eugenides’ personal defender I apologize, for its really Cal’s story that I am so enamored with and not the behind-the-scenes creation of Middlesex. As a “token” story in a sea of misinformation and somewhat bigoted judgments (Mendelsohn’s own review is titled The Great Hermaphrodite, despite that being an insensitive descriptor for the intersex population, not to mention a separate review titled Helen of Boy), critics asked that Cal represent the struggle of an entire population of people rather than appreciate the woven complexity of every individual’s reaction to extraordinary circumstances.

“The sweep of Middlesex is impressive, but not so much as Eugendies’ ability to visualize history as a matrix of coincidences, unexpected repetitions and poignant ironies,” said Keith Phillips in his AV Club review. Developing on that idea, I believe Eugenides’ true genius lies in distilling that gorgeous patchwork of history into the intricate narrative qualities and emotional makeup of a single man. Eugenides’ uses the makeup of Middlesex as a funnel for the reader as the story moves from epic to intimate.

You will want to know: How did we get used to things?… Did Calliope have to die in order to make room for Cal? To all these question I offer the same truism: It’s amazing what you can get used to…My change from girl to boy was far less dramatic than the distance anybody travels from infancy to adulthood.

This truism put forth by Cal is perhaps what draws me most to the coming of age story Cal experiences. Yes, there are dramatic scenes including getting hit by a car, being confronted with physically changing oneself to conform to sexual identity via surgery, starring in a freak show, being homeless in San Fransisco, etc (the drama is definitely a delicious part of experiencing Middlesex). But the truth that Cal has no choice but to settle into his own skin, and that his choices are informed by his growth as a person and not as a “hermaphrodite” nestle the questions of gender identity into part of a larger discussion of choosing what one wants from life regardless of gender.

Cal’s families history and those random chances patched together to create him are just as integral as questions of intersexuality. At the heart of Middlesex is the long-loved juxtapositions of nature vs. nurture, destiny vs. fate, love vs. duty. To focus on Cal’s story as one of an intersex man is to miss the point of Middlesex entirely. The epicness of the Stephanides’ family story, the expansion of the world for two immigrants, the struggle for survival in a world poised for change, the struggle to put onself in the context of history – those are but a few of the themes far more important for Cal, and far more important for the reader.

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