Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Agony of Ambiguity

Middlesex is author Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel. Eugenides' first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published in 1993, which terrifyingly enough, was 17 years ago.
Seventeen years. What was Eugenides doing all that time? The idea of a seventeen-year gap between publications is almost unthinkable for today's authors, who are churning* out Stephanie Plums and Sookie Stackhouses with disturbing regularity.

That aside, Middlesex is a fantastic book. The narrator, now-early-40s Cal Stephanides, gets right down to it in the first sentence: Cal was born Calliope, for all intents and purposes, a girl. But not actually a girl. To undertand Cal's unique nature, you have to go all the way back to the provincial town of Bathynios, Greece, where parentless siblings Desdemona and Lefty live on a hill above Smyrna. Desdemona is the archetypal sturdy village girl, sensible and earthy, who spends her days tending to her silkworm cocoons. Her dapper older brother haunts the gambling dens and whorehouses of Smyrna, seeking out prostitutes that look like Desdemona.

After the Turks invade and burn Smyrna, Lefty and Desdemona flee on an America-bound boat, and take the opportunity to give themselves new histories and genealogies - as well as seizing the chance to act on their mutual attraction. The siblings get married onboard.

Now, contrary to rather long-held belief, isolated instances of inbreeding are not inherently genetically damning. Rather, successive generations of inbreeding continue raising the odds that a genetic screw-up is going to happen, by raising the odds that carriers of certain gene mutations will get together and pass the mutation along to their kids (see the Virginia Quarterly Review's excellent fall 2007 article about the isolated village of Aicuna and its large population of albinos).

So, when Desdemona and Lefty's son Milton falls for his second cousin, Tessie, the odds are stacked against them, because they're not only second cousins, but Lefty's father and mother are also sister and brother from a small town that already had a lot of married cousins. But Milton and Tessie don't know this, because Desdemona and Lefty have kept it a secret, so they blithely get married, have one genetically normal son, and a hermaphroditic daughter.

Calliope is one of the more rare variants of hermaphrodite, a male pseudohermaprodite. Desdemona's docter, an elderly and nearly blind Armenian from Smyrna that the siblings met on the boat, doesn't catch it, and neither does anyone else. Callie is for all intents and purposes a perfectly normal girl, until she crashes into puberty and, instead of sprouting a bust, gets a deeper voice, five o'clock shadow, and falls in love with one of her classmates at her private, all-girls school.

Callie's hermaphroditism isn't discovered until she ends up in an emergency room after an accident while on vacation with her first love. Her parents, who have no reason to believe she's anything other than a girl, take her to a therapist in New York, but when faced with the prospect of surgery to 'correct' her ambiguous genitalia, Callie flees.

Now, looking back on the unique circumstances of his life, Cal is lonely but decidedly male, living a parapatetic existence as a Foreign Service Officer and sabotaging any burgeoning romances before he has to explain what he is.

Middlesex is a denser, more complicated narrative than The Virgin Suicides. Eugnides delves not only into Cal's mind, but into the minds of Desdemona and Lefty, Cal's parents, his brother, and other assorted relatives. However, interestingly, Cal's potential romantic partners, in school and otherwise, remain ciphers. Cal names his first love the Object, and she remains as mysterious to him as Cal's body is. Middlesex is also a decidedly self-centered book, and Cal is the vortex around which the action whirls, the culmination of the consequences of a chain of actions that began generations before he was born.

Middlesex has a rather irritating strain of silliness that runs through it, which seems to have been cropping up in a lot of new fiction - the postmodern answer to magical realism? It distracts from the otherwise solid writing, as do the presence of a lot more stylistic flourishes than Eugenides' solid, unadorned debut leads one to expect. Middlesex also leaves a number of questions unaddressed about how Callie goes about officially refashioning herself as Cal without undergoing sexual reassignment surgery. Still, Middlesex is a rewarding novel from a very talented writer, and tackles the Hydra-headed subject of gender, nature, and nuture with admirable results.

And speaking of genetic mutations:

Armand LeRoi's excellent Mutants was published in 2003, and it's a gorgeously written, fascinating without being voyeuristic or exploitative, meditation on genetics and how genetic variations and mutations happen and what the results are. In eloquent language, LeRoi explains the basis for genetic mutations, how they are passed on, and exactly what occurs in the process of development. Mutants is also part historical treatise, and LeRoi presents a fascinating view of how mutations have been viewed, examined, diagnosed, and treated throughout history. From being celebrated as signs of wonder to being damned as evidence of divine curses, LeRoi treats the subjects of his book respectfully. After all, as he reveals, most of us are mutants, it's just that our mutations aren't visible.

*I must confess - I first wrote "pooping," but then took it out because I thought it was too rude.


  1. I thought it was a great book! I would highly recommend reading Mutants, especially after finishing Middlesex - it gives you the biological basis for how hermaphroditism happens.