Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)

--The blurb--
"In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls' school in Grosse Pointe, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking, strawberry-blond classmate with a gift for acting. The passion that furtively develops between them leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, Cal has inherited a rare genetic mutation. The biological trace of a guilty secret, this gene has followed her grandparents from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Detroit and has outlasted the glory days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family's second migration, into the foreign country known as suburbia. Thanks to the gene, Cal is part girl, part boy. And even though the gene's epic travels have ended, her own odyssey has only begun."

--The review--
When Homer Simpson decides, in yet another new line of work, to get a fake qualification online that allows him to conduct marriage ceremonies, quite a few people step up to tie the knot under his dubious jurisdiction. One of these couples is composed of Brandine and Cletus, a recurring hick-town couple in the show. Just as Homer is about to pronounce them man and wife, he suddenly stops and says "Hey, are you two brother and sister?!", to which the couple gaily reply, "We's all kinds of things!"

It is this premise of incest, and the disastrous chain of events that it can provoke, that provides the basis of Eugenides' second novel, Middlesex. Even though the novel's approach can seem slightly contrived in places, it is mostly believable, with the author assuming the female voice very successfully. Epic in its scope, the novel is not only detailed in its plot construction and scientific research, but also gives the reader a sweeping panoramic view of twentieth-century American history. This ambition could easily leave the reader lost, but Eugenides not only traverses the different generations and time periods with ease but does well, too, in making the novel accessible as well as unusual. Writing the novel chiefly from Callie's point of view, Eugenides occasionally slips into a more omniscient tone than might be considered appropriate, and yet in conjunction with the resolution of the novel, it does end up seeming appropriate after all.

In spite of the novel's length, and the author's sophisticated use of vocabulary, it has all the momentum of a runaway freight train, compelling the reader to read on. The characters are highly human and the spanning across three generations is something that I believe to have been influenced by Zadie Smith's White Teeth. It is possible, too, that Charlie Anders drew a little inspiration in Choir Boy from the relationships that Eugenides depicts. However, one aspect of the characterisation that will be lost on the vast majority of readers is the naming of protagonist Callie's brother only as Chapter Eleven, which is an obscure political reference that I had to look up in order for it to be explained. Even if it does hold some minor element of foreshadowing, this ultimately does not enhance the story in any way, and hinders rather than helps the reader.

Colm Toibin's introduction to the novel also does not help the reader in any meaningful way: to my mind, introductions to novels should help to explain to the reader or shed further light on issues arising in the novel. Toibin's introduction, however, is more of a book review in itself, and while admittedly it is a good one, his opinion is the sole focus, and this for me has no place in an introduction (or at least very little). In any case, Eugenides' work speaks for itself, with him handling the transition between scenes with dexterity and ease. Particularly interesting is the non-chronological order in which the story is told, which leads to increasing curiosity on the reader's part not only about how Callie has got to the present day but also about Callie's burgeoning relationship with Julie. The last we see of Callie and Julie is when Callie is just about to tell Julie about her past, and even though we don't get to see Julie's reaction, this feels right: we feel as if we ought to creep away quietly and let them get on with it in private.

The novel is neither wholly a sentimental family saga nor wholly an academic treatise on gender versus sex; its blend of various genres and topics makes it more significant than this, particularly as attitudes to sexuality and gender become more open and understood, especially in relation to the recent case of Caster Semenya. In trying to alert people to and inform people about the subject of hermaphrodism and intersexuality, Eugenides certainly succeeds. As previously mentioned, it also serves as a microcosm of American history over the past century, and also incorporates James Bond-style elements, such as car chases and dodgy deals. The reader is left beyond satisfied in virtually all respects, this highly influential work deserving a place on every modern bookshelf.

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