12 December 2013

Book Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Is it a he? Or a she? What if visibly it should be a she? But at the same time, chromosome-wise, it is a he? Middlesex is the story of Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite who was raised as a girl, but is genetically a boy.

The story is complex; it spans three generations, beginning in 1922, when Cal's grandparents left Smyrna for the United States during the Great Fire. Lefty and Desdemona were third cousins, but at the same time, they were also siblings. Due to the circumstances of immigration at that time, they figured out that the best way for both of them to survive was to get married and pretend that they were husband and wife. This union produced the second generation, which featured cousins marrying. And finally, these married cousins produced Cal, who has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. The novel tracks how this gene came into being, hence, the story begins in 1922, all told in a series of flashbacks (where the "present" is set in Berlin, where Cal is part of the diplomatic corps). Eventually, the history unravels until it reaches the present time, where Cal is now an adult. The novel has many layers, and is told using the frame narrative.

Perhaps one of the things I am going to comment about is the verbosity of this novel. This novel is thick, running at 528 pages. There are three generations in the narrative, and since it is written in the frame narrative, the whole novel is composed of several smaller stories. Small stories that make up the narrative about Cal's grandparents, and then Cal's parents, and then Cal. And sure enough, the more remote in the past the narrative is, the more disconnected it seems from Cal, who, after all, is the main character of the story. And sometimes, I cannot help but feel why this is the case. Why did Eugenides use this narrative style to tell the story of an intersex person?

Sure, I know that in order to tell the history of a recessive gene staying in the bloodstream due to incestuous relationships, one has to tell a history of several generations. But sometimes, I feel like it was overdone. I found myself wondering what the connection was of the Great Fire of Smyrna with this recessive gene that produces intersex human beings. Instead of providing a huge holistic picture of Cal, instead it feels like one gigantic digression.

See, I have no problem with the frame narrative. In fact, I have a couple of books I like written in the frame narrative (books by Salman Rushdie come to mind). However, unlike Rushdie's novels, Middlesex doesn't have the weight to merit using the frame narrative. The novel is not dealing with huge topics like the Partition of India, or other historical events. Instead, it is just a novel about one single intersex individual. Hence, I felt that using the frame narrative to tell this story is a little over the top.

That was the major criticism I have of the book. But there are also aspects that I liked. I liked the fact that Eugenides would go back and forth between first-person and third-person narratives in this book. It gave this whole out-of-body experience while reading it, which was also appropriate as the main character was learning how to deal with his/her gender identity, having been raised as a girl, but then subsequently realizing that one's chromosomes are of a boy's. I also liked the various themes that this novel touched upon, not only about the intersex and one's psychological and mental aspects, but also about the American Dream, the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, among others.

Overall, the book is very hard to classify, and perhaps, this is another one of its weaknesses. Due to the immense length of the book, there are times in which it felt like I was reading a tragicomedy, primarily the first part. There were also parts that felt like a social realistic novel, painting the dreary atmosphere during the Detroit riots. And then, near the end, when Cal finally encounters and deals with his gender identity head-on, the novel feels like a psychological thriller. In connection with my criticism about the frame narrative, I cannot shake off the idea that the author expounded this into something bigger than what it should have been. It felt like there were at least two books in here, telling at least two stories. And because there are multiple stories, multiple unnecessary parallelisms and metaphors are possible, yet not needed. One doesn't have to be a Greek immigrant to be a hermaphrodite, and vice versa. I almost wanted to rip the book in half, separating the Greek diaspora story from the hermaphrodite story, because these two threads are orthogonal and not entailing one from the other.

As a conclusion, while I enjoyed reading this book, at a critical and academic level, I feel like the author overdid it, and sometimes, having too much is a bad thing too. I felt like one doesn't need 528 pages and several sub-stories to tell the complexity of being an intersex. I know that everyone has rich histories, but not everyone needs to have one's history in print. It just feels too fantastic and too good to be true otherwise. I give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

See my other book reviews here.

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