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Mighty Hermaphrodite

Middlesex

by Jeffrey Eugenides
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 529 pp., $27.00

1.

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.

It’s hard not to feel that the Stephanideses’ story is the story that Eugenides really wants to tell—a story of Greek immigrants as only one who has hungrily absorbed such stories from birth can retell them. This narrative is populated by memorable characters who have all the hard, unexpected contours of real people: Lefty, struck dumb by a stroke, meticulously translating Sappho every day, smoking hashish and listening to rebetika albums in his attic room while communicating with his family by means of a chalkboard; the ferocious and self-consciously “self-made” Milt, arguing politics with the Marxist girlfriend that Callie’s older brother brings home from college during the Sixties (“Well, if giving somebody a job is exploiting them, then I guess I’m an exploiter”); Uncle Mike, the Orthodox priest who’s married to Milt’s sister but loves Tessie; Tessie herself, anxious and ever hopeful that her daughter will finally start menstruating. Perhaps because they are voices the author has heard, these ring true in a way that Callie’s, and Cal’s, never do.

The author has, indeed, got a remarkably good ear for the rhythms not only of immigrant speech, but of im-migrant thought, too. The elderly, bleakly fatalistic Desdemona’s pleasure in commercials for detergents, with their “animating scrubbing bubbles and avenging suds,” tells you more about her particular brand of grim Puritanism—the prudishness of a woman who has lived most of her life burdened with secret guilt—than five pages of exposition could. You have no problem believing that this is a woman who, when vexed by a family member—as when, for instance, her son Milt decides that he won’t have the infant Callie baptized—starts fanning herself furiously with one of a very special collection of fans:

The front of the fan was emblazoned with the words “Turkish Atrocities.” Below, in smaller print, were the specifics: the 1955 pogrom in Istanbul in which 15 Greeks were killed, 200 Greek women raped, 4,348 stores looted, 59 Orthodox churches destroyed, and even the graves of the Patriarchs desecrated. Desdemona had six atrocity fans. They were a collector’s set. Each year she sent a contribution to the Partriarchate in Constantinople, and a few weeks later a new fan arrived, making claims of genocide…. Not appearing on Desdemona’s particular fan that day, but denounced nonetheless, was the most recent crime, committed not by the Turks but by her own Greek son, who refused to give his daughter a proper Orthodox baptism….

It is at the baptism—for of course Desdemona eventually gets her way—that Callie, whose abbreviated, penis-like member is so well hidden by the folds of skin around her genitals that Tessie’s obstetrician thinks the infant is a girl, urinates on the priest, the stream “ris[ing] in an arc,” much to the atheistic Milt’s delight. An arc? “In all the commotion,” the adult Cal dryly remarks, “no one wondered about the engineering involved.”

2.

The engineering involved brings us to the other part of Middlesex: the her-maphrodite’s tale, the material that gives this classic immigrant saga its special, au courant twist. Ironically, this ostensibly more sensational material turns out to be the flatter, less interesting half of Eugenides’s hybrid book.

The literary interest of a novel with this subject lies, inevitably, in the author’s obligation to create a uniquely doubled, and mixed, voice. What would a voice that had been both male and female—the voice of Teiresias, as it were—really sound like? And yet the author’s feel for hermaphrodites isn’t nearly as sure as his grasp on Hellenes; throughout Middlesex, you feel that he’s evading what he should be confronting, both stylistically and intellectually. For one thing, he gets around the problem of having to invent a new kind of voice—even the problem of having to ventriloquize convincingly a young midwestern Greek-American girl—by narrating his hybrid story in the voice of the adult, and decidedly male, Cal. How much more stylish and persuasive this book would have been had the voice of the girlish Callie sounded different—interestingly, meaningfully different—from the voice of the male adult she becomes.

The result is an odd but pervasive sense of superficiality; it’s a performance more than a novel. Toward the end of Middlesex, Callie starts doing some research on terms she sees in a doctor’s report about her, and (after looking up some words in an encyclopedia) notes, with grief, that one synonym for what she is is “MONSTER.” The scene is meant to be moving—climactically moving, even—but it doesn’t work because you’ve never really gotten to know this monster intimately; you know about her what you might have guessed anyway—and we don’t need novels to tell us what we already know. (The scrim of the narrator’s sardonic, postmodern sensibility, while fashionable among writers in their forties, doesn’t help matters.) The scene may put you in mind of another famous monster, but only briefly; Mary Shelley was canny enough to know that in order to sympathize with her creature, you had to get inside its head, let it speak for itself.

Not, indeed, that there is all that much to enter into in the case of Callie’s, and Cal’s, heads. A major problem with Middlesex is that there’s nothing all that interesting or distinctive about either half of the main character: one is a fairly ordinary Midwestern girl (except, perhaps, for her growing tendency to develop crushes on other girls), the other an all-too-typically sardonic, post-everything American male. But like the two parts of the novel they inhabit, neither seems to have much to do with the other; and it is of course the connection between them, the “middle” to which Eugenides’s title refers, that we want to know more about, because that’s the part that’s unusual and unknown to us.

Cal in particular has surprisingly little personality, given all he’s been through, as if having been both male and female has depleted, rather than enriched, his (as he might say) Weltanschauung. You finish the novel without knowing much about him, apart from his penchant for saying sardonic things about Berlin and Einheit and for making vaguely postmodern narrative gestures (“…which brings me to the final complication in that overplotted year”). Speaking of overplotting: a tenuous subplot, set in the present and concerned with Cal’s tentative courtship of an Asian-American artist, feels artificial, constructed solely to give an overarching shape to the novel’s four big sections.

It’s not that Eugenides can’t persuasively do unusual voices: in The Virgin Suicides, he invented a plural narrator to better articulate the inchoate and intense yearning peculiar to adolescence. All the more strange, then, that the lengthy section of the new novel devoted to the event that awakens Callie’s sense of being “different”—a fierce crush on a junior high school classmate identified throughout the novel as “the Obscure Object” (a moniker that the author goes on to explain, giving a plot summary of the Buñuel film)—feels dutiful rather than inspired. This may be because Eugenides—which is to say, Cal—isn’t quite comfortable in Callie’s skin. The “chorus” that made up the first book’s collective narrator was so convincing because of the poignant tension between their adult hindsight and the boyish yearning (for the dead girls whom they desired) still evident in that collective voice. None of this textured quality emerges in Cal’s description of Callie’s infatuation with the “O.O.,” which is a pretty ordinary adolescent crush. True, efforts have been made to suggest the atmosphere of adolescent girlhood: there’s a lot about the feverish social politics of Callie’s all-girl school (the misfits, the “Charm Bracelets,” and so on). But unlike virtually everything about The Virgin Suicides, this material, like so much of what we learn about Callie, feels studied, learned.

The failure of the author to provide an authentic voice and personality for his creature presages larger intellectual failings. It’s probably safe to say that a novel whose main character—whose narrator—is someone who’s lived as both a female and a male has to justify itself by providing some kind of rare or remarkable insight into sex and gender. Eugenides himself acknowledges as much when he has Callie observe that “latent inside me… was the ability to communicate between the genders, to see not with the monovision of one sex but in the stereoscope of both.” And yet that special stereoscopic vision is not in evidence here—or rather, the privileged information you get from Callie and Cal never strikes you as being that special. There is, if anything, something cliché about the insights into gender that the author comes up with. When Callie finds she likes reading the Iliad, she wonders whether it’s the male hormones “manifesting themselves silently inside me”; so too when she finds herself falling in love with (as she thinks) another girl. Similarly, when she sees through a plan by a couple of boys to get her and the Obscure Object to take a walk to an abandoned cabin in the woods, she wonders whether she does so because she’s really a boy herself.

Rather than being more than usually nuanced insights into sex roles and gender behavior, as one would hope to have from a narrator who’s so pointedly identified with Teiresias, the characterization of boys as inherently oversexed and violence-loving—traits that Callie, as she becomes a teenager, finds she shares, and that appear meant to justify her feeling that she is “really” a boy—are hardly nuanced. (They’re the product of what you could safely call cultural monovision.) And to declare that “desire [for a girl] made me cross over to the other side”—i.e., to being a boy—seems awfully naive in this day and age, positing a kind of essentialism about sexuality and erotic affect that is equally unsubtle. (Why is it the case that Callie’s attraction to girls “means” she’s a boy? Couldn’t she simply be gay?) We may not know much about Callie by the end of this book, but we certainly get a glimpse into how Eugenides thinks. “Breasts have the same effect on me as on anyone with my testosterone level,” the adult Cal boasts, a claim that will surely come as a surprise to Eugenides’s (presumably testosterone-rich) gay male readership.

I suspect that Eugenides has fallen back on such unthinking clichés for the same reason that Callie and Cal remain so unformed: in the end, he hasn’t figured out what might go on inside the head of someone who’s had Callie’s experiences. This vacuum at the center of his book accounts for a general sense of deflation toward the end, when some weighty climactic aperçus start racking up. But do you really read a 529-page novel that sets out to explore the most profound realm of human experience merely to find out, in its closing pages, that “normality wasn’t normal” or that “what really mattered in life, what gave it weight, was death”?

Worse, you leave Middlesex with the impression that its author doesn’t really believe in the premise to which his title so cleverly alludes—in the rich possibilities afforded by being truly in, and of, the “middle.” After the fateful automobile accident that results in the revelation of Callie’s special nature (she runs into the street while escaping the embraces of the O.O.’s amorous brother, and is rushed to the ER, where an astute doctor diagnoses her condition), the fourteen-year-old is taken by her confused and incredulous parents to a sex disorders clinic at a New York hospital. Here, she is interviewed by a renowned sex researcher, who slants the results of his research into her case in order to bolster his own view that nurture, rather than nature (i.e., genetics), determines a child’s gender.

When Callie sneaks a look at his report, which recommends reconstructive surgery on the (genetically male) teenager’s abbreviated organ in order to preserve her female identity, she runs away from the clinic, from New York, and from her—now his—parents, because he’s decided that, as he writes in a farewell note to his parents, “I am not a girl! I’m a boy.” (Like his grandparents before him, he deals with his terrible secret by going west: cutting his hair, donning boy’s clothes, he hitches his way to—naturally—San Francisco, where he works as a freak in a sex show for a while before the novel’s final, and least plausible, bit of overplotting—a frantic car chase involving Milt, a fake kidnapping, and ransom money, the sole purpose of which is to bring the wayward Callie back home for a climactic funeral and reconciliation.) The author may think he’s writing about the unique double viewpoint, the stereoscopic sensibility, the sense of special access to two worlds at once, but the novel he’s written is, in fact, about the far less interesting search for who Callie “really” is—which is to say, one thing rather than another, instead of both things at once. It pretends to be about being in the middle, only to end up suggesting that you have to choose either end.

The unpersuasiveness and approximateness of Eugenides’s handling of the hermaphrodite material and the questions it raises, in contrast to the verve and authenticity of its Greek family saga, suggests that, with Middlesex, we are indeed in the presence of a strange hybrid; it’s just not the one Eugenides was aiming to create. There’s no way to prove it, but I have a feeling that Middlesex began its life as two novels: a Greek immigrant story, based to whatever extent (one hopes not too great) on the author’s family history; and a novel about the alluring subject of bimorphic sexuality (based, perhaps, on the sensational case, much publicized a few years ago, of a Midwestern girl who turned out, like Callie, to be genetically male). At some point, it seems, the author had, or was given, the idea of fusing the two. But the graft didn’t take. They may inhabit the same body, but in the end the immigrants and the hermaphrodite have nothing to do with each other; there’s nothing about Greekness that helps you understand this hermaphrodite, and there’s nothing about hermaphroditism that helps you understand these particular Greeks. There’s no reason, whether in theme or meaning, that this hermaphrodite should be Greek, except that Eugenides makes her Greek, because he has a Greek story to tell as well as a hermaphrodite’s story.

Here it is useful to compare Middlesex with another recent novel in which one family’s private story is used symbolically to invoke much larger historical and intellectual concerns: Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in which a pair of Jewish cousins during World War II—one a Czech refugee, the other a closeted Brooklyn gay youth—creates a popular cartoon character called “The Escapist.” But in Chabon’s book, the leitmotif of escape and escapism is deeply tied to the plight of the Jews of Europe, to a sense of the meaning of popular culture, to the gay cousin’s secret sexuality, and to many other elements and ideas. In Eugenides’s novel, by contrast, the potential of the apparent leitmotif (bimorphisms, dual identities, deep divisions within the self) is never realized. The author doesn’t provide enough about the immigrant dilemma of divided identity to make Callie’s condition a cogent metaphor for her family’s status; and because the sections in which the Stephanides clan interacts with its black neighbors in Detroit (one none-too-realistic subplot has Desdemona teaching young Nation of Islam acolytes how to produce silk) feel constructed rather than organic, dutiful rather than inspired, the connections that Eugenides seems to want to make in those scenes (between his hermaphrodite and, say, to America’s divided self) don’t persuade, and come off as merely portentous.

And so, in the end, Middlesex itself is stranded in the middle, somewhere between either of the two books it might have been. Or, perhaps, it has extremes but no “real” middle, no place where the two parts connect. Like that statue in Uffizi, it has a surfeit of distinct characteristics that, properly speaking, belong to different realms. Eugenides’s ambitious but malformed novel may not end up shedding much light on what it means to be in that middle, but there’s no question that it’s a bit of a hermaphrodite itself.

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