Those Greeks and their hermaphrodites! Teiresias, the seer who futilely haunts so many Greek tragedies, was one. Having enjoyed the special privilege of living as both a male and a female, he was asked by the gods to settle an argument about which of the two sexes had more pleasure from lovemaking; on asserting that the female did, he was struck blind by prudish Hera—but given the gift of prophecy by Zeus as a compensation. The minor deity Hermaphroditus, of course, was another, appearing in religion (there is evidence of dedications to the god as early as the third century BC in Attica), in literature (Ovid, in the fourth book of Metamorphoses, elaborates the mythic narrative in which this son of Hermes and Aphrodite was joined in one body with the nymph Salmacis), and in art, where the opportunities for imaginative representations of this strange creature proved irresistible, predictably enough, to Hellenistic sculptors, with their penchant for the extreme. The most famous of these sculpted hermaphrodites is a Greek one from about 150 BC, which survives in Roman copies such as the one to be found in the “Hermaphrodite Room” in the Uffizi. At first glance, the figure seems to be that of a sleeping woman. She lies face down, and is quite voluptuous: her breasts, pressed against the couch on which she reclines, are full, as are her hips. Her hair is carefully, fashionably coiffed. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary female. For there, peeking out of the voluminous folds of her gown, is a penis, as modest and perfectly formed as any of the unassuming members familiar from countless classical nudes. Male nudes, that is.
To this catalog we may now add another Greek, Calliope Stephanides, the heroine—and later the hero (“Cal”)—of Jeffrey Eugenides’s second novel, which is slyly entitled Middlesex. (The title ostensibly refers to the name of the street in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where much of the novel is set.) For adorable little Callie turns out, by the novel’s end, to be a boy—one who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes a type of male pseudo-hermaphroditism: although chromosomally male (she has both an X and a Y), she has no real penis, but instead a kind of extended clitoris which she will refer to as “the crocus”; she has testes, but they remain undescended. As a result of this she is misidentified at birth as being a girl and is raised as a girl by her amusingly neurotic, upper-middle-class Greek-American parents. Until puberty, that is, when her male hormones kick in and it becomes increasingly evident that she is no ordinary female. (For one thing, she doesn’t menstruate, although she tries mightily to fake it: “I did cramps the way Meryl Streep does accents.”) It is only after a road accident lands her in an emergency room that Callie and her bewildered family realize how extraordinary she really is. Middlesex, then, is a Bildungsroman with a rather big twist: the Bildung it describes turns out to be the wrong one—a false start.
From Ovid to Gore Vidal, hermaphroditism and bisexuality have provided writers with irresistible occasions to comment on both nature and culture; Eugenides—whose small, nearly perfect first novel, The Virgin Suicides, reflected a Greek tragic sensibility, with its chorus-like first-person-plural narration and its self-immolating young heroines, like something out of Euripides—is well aware of the opportunities his choice of subject has afforded. (Although in the new novel, the author’s allusions to the—his—Greek literary heritage tend to be on the jokey side, consisting of mock-epic invocations of the Muses: “Sing, Muse, of Greek ladies and their battle against unsightly hair!” and so on.) The tension between who Callie is raised to be and who Cal ends up being, between his early life as a girl and his subsequent life as a man, are obviously intended to serve as occasions for musing upon all kinds of bimorphisms and dualities.
Among these are the ironies of being a “hyphenated” American of recent vintage (“In America, England is where you go to wash yourself of ethnicity”: so observes a sardonic Callie, the big-nosed, dark-haired child of first-generation Greek-Americans, who ends up attending a Waspy private girls’ school); the horrors of racial conflict (a major set piece of the novel takes place during the 1967 Detroit race riots); and, indeed, the entire global geopolitical picture. Reminiscing about his family’s reaction to the 1974 Cyprus crisis, the adult Cal, who ends up a career diplomat stationed in Berlin, remarks knowingly that now Cyprus was “like Berlin, like Korea, like all the other places in the world that were no longer one thing or the other.” Elsewhere, he ruefully observes that both he and the once-torn city are seeking “unification…Einheit.”
And yet Einheit is what Middlesex itself ultimately lacks. Eugenides’s novel seems itself to be composed of two distinct and occasionally warring halves. One part has to do with hermaphrodites—with Callie’s condition, and how she comes to discover what she “really” is. The other, far more successful part has to do with Greeks—and, in a way, Greekness. Far more colorful than the story of what Callie is, is the story of how she came to be that way—the story of why this child came to inherit the exceedingly rare and fateful gene that ends up defining her indefinable life. This story, an old-fashioned family saga, is as full of incest, violence, and terrible family secrets, making themselves felt from one generation to the next, as anything you find in Sophocles—a junior high school performance of whose Antigone plays, indeed, a crucial role in the plot. Needless to say, Callie gets cast as Teiresias.
Everything in Middlesex that has to do with the (to say the least) eccentric Stephanides clan is lively and original, fulfilling the promise of The Virgin Suicides nearly a decade ago. It’s a measure of Eugenides’s self-confidence that he spills the novel’s most sensational secret—that Callie’s paternal grandparents, Desdemona and Eleutherios (“Lefty”) Stephanides are actually brother and sister—early on. To his credit, if the incest theme holds your attention, it’s not so much because it’s the key to Callie’s genetic inheritance as because of the unusually understated way that the author handles it. The opening pages of Eugenides’s book, with its descrip-tion of the young Desdemona’s and Lefty’s claustrophobic lives in a tiny Anatolian village near Smyrna in the early 1920s, are so tenderly rendered as to make this strange love seem natural.
Orphaned during the Greco-Ottoman violence that culminated in the 1922 Turkish massacre of the Greeks of Smyrna, the voluptuous, fiercely proper Desdemona and her jaunty younger brother (who uncomprehendingly warbles American pop tunes as he gets dressed) are left alone to tend the family’s silk farm on the slopes of a mountain overlooking Bursa, the ancient Ottoman capital. With considerable delicacy and not a little humor—Cal’s narrative voice is itself rather jaunty throughout—Eugenides explores the ferocity that can characterize the feelings that siblings living in isolated places have for each other. (“Lefty was one year younger than Desdemona and she often wondered how she’d survived those first twelve months without him.”)
The Bursa section is really the only one in which Eugenides’s efforts to tie this family’s story to that of a whole nation isn’t forced. (Two long sections about the Stephanides family’s dealings with blacks—and, by extension, about America’s race problems—come off as preachy and rather nervous. The seven-year-old Callie’s observations that the 1967 riots are “nothing less than a guerrilla uprising. The Second American Revolution” stretch credulity to the breaking point.) As the brother and sister try to resist the storm of passion that has seized them, the storm clouds of war gather around them. Their efforts at resisting each other are, occasionally, comic: an increasingly desperate Desdemona futilely gives beauty tips to the only other marriageable girls in the village, hoping they’ll look more attractive to a disdainful Lefty, who spends his time in the brothels of Bursa, choosing girls who have his sister’s dark braids and full figure.
Here, the author recalls, not without a wry bitterness, the Greek government’s ill-fated plan to reclaim its ancient Anatolian territories (a scheme known as the Megala Idea, the “Big Idea”), which ends in disaster, with the triumphant rise of Ataturk and, in 1922, the Turkish army’s burning of Smyrna and the murder of over 100,000 of that city’s Greek inhabitants—the horrific, cannily narrated set piece for the first of this novel’s four main sections. The carnage of the Smyrna cataclysm becomes a cover for the two orphaned siblings to consummate their long-burning lust for each other, and to emigrate as man and wife.
Many of the pleasures to be had from Eugenides’s book are the pleasures to be had from any good immigrant family novel; for the first two hundred of Eugenides’s five-hundred-plus pages, you’re so absorbed in the saga of the Stephanideses’ attempt to establish themselves in their new country that you’re tempted to forget that this is all, in its way, preamble—an elaborate explication of how Callie came to inherit her special gene. These richly emotional—and, often, richly comic—pages move, in classic immigrant-novel fashion, both westward and upward. Eugenides’s dense narrative, interwoven with sardonic, fashionably postmodern commentary by the grown-up Cal, follows Lefty and Desdemona from their arrival at Ellis Island (“At least it’s a woman,” Desdemona says, warily eyeing the Statue of Liberty. “Maybe here people won’t be killing each other every single day”), to their journey west to Detroit. There, their first cousin Sourmalina, a thoroughly Americanized young woman with some secrets of her own—she was kicked out of the village after being found in a compromising position with a married woman—awaits them. She is the only person to whom they ever confess their terrible secret, using her own past as leverage.
Eugenides’s sprawling narrative continues on from the birth of Desdemona and Lefty’s son, Miltiades (Milt), who will become Callie’s father, through the Depression (Lefty’s brief career as a gangster ends when Prohibition ends and he becomes a popular barkeep). It gradually shifts focus to Milt and his youth and young adulthood during the Second World War, lingering on his fanciful courtship of Sourmalina’s daughter Tessie, whom he eventually marries (he charms her with his clarinet-playing, and then with his clarinet itself, which he places against various parts of her body as he plays); then it shifts from the loss of Milt’s first business during the 1967 Detroit race riots to his founding—partly by means of an insurance settlement after the riots—of a successful restaurant chain that brings him thoroughly American success while invoking his ethnic past. (The chain is called “Hercules Hot Dogs.”) And so the story goes on, shifting finally to Callie herself, as she grows up and, during yet another Turkish invasion—the 1974 Cyprus crisis—discovers the mystery of her own identity.