“Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!”
So does Calliope Helen Stephanides, also known as Cal, the narrator and central character of Jeffrey Eugenides’ second novel, Middlesex, reference Homeric origins to recount the odyssey of a Greek couple that fled Bithynios to settle in Detroit. The marriage of Eleutherios “Lefty” and Desdemona Stephanides would be interesting in its own right, including political intrigue, refugee poverty, a narrow escape from an advancing army and establishment of residence with a lesbian cousin and her bootlegging husband. But Cal’s story is complicated by genetic heredity and the inconvenient secret that grandparents Lefty and Desdemona harbor: they are full brother and sister, each bearing a gene that will eventually pair with its kind, a “miscreant,” as Cal calls it, at conception. The conspiracy between these two recessive genes will go on to inhabit Cal’s chromosome number five. “Together,” Cal relates, “they siphon off an enzyme, which stops the production of a certain hormone, which complicates my life.”
Cal, the forty-one year-old narrator, is living as a man in Germany, relating the story of his life as a girl until age fourteen, when an accident prompted an emergency room visit and the discovery was made that Calliope, the teenage girl, was physiologically also a teenage boy. Between flashbacks, the reader learns that Cal, a State Department employee, is attracted to an Asian woman and his explanation of his condition to her serve to illuminate the wider audience as well.
The narrative proceeds at an entertaining pace until a quirky (and unbelievable) episode in which Desdemona becomes employed by the Nation of Islam in downtown Detroit. At this point in the story, two children, double cousins, have been born into the extended Detroit household. As though the Gods had scripted their fates, the cousins fall in love, marry and produce two children: one dubbed Chapter Eleven in an unsuccessful authorial attempt at wry humor; the second named Callliope, in whom the recessive gene expresses itself.
Eugenides has certainly done his scientific research and includes it gracefully and cleverly. The science of Cal’s condition is neither overwhelmingly presented with scientific jargon nor dumbed down to elucidate, delicately, on his physical situation: Cal was born with a separation resembling a vagina at birth, but unnoticed by the aging family physician, a relatively small penis was tucked up inside. In terms of chromosomal composition, Cal is XY, making him more “man” than “woman” and possessed with secondary sex characteristics of a biological male, such as a puberty-deepened voice and facial hair. In addition, indicating that gender rearing is not everything, Cal is attracted, not to boys her age, but to girls. Various sexual encounters are trotted out to demonstrate the point.
Middlesex is on balance a decent and very readable book. Eugenides does not seem overly concerned with crafting terrific or unusual prose, preferring instead to rely on predictable sentence patterns and word choices suitable for the lexicon of the modern literary fiction reader. Take, for example, a sample from the scene in which Lefty and Desdemona, newly and illicitly married on the ship bound for America, make love in a lifeboat:
“Lefty, too, was conflicted. Though he had been tortured by thoughts of Desdemona, he was glad for the darkness of the lifeboat, glad, in particular, that he couldn’t see her face. For months Lefty had slept with whores who resembled Desdemona, but now he found it easier to pretend that she was a stranger.”
This is not a bad paragraph, explaining the brother’s forbidden and complicated longings, although the reader, to this point, has already been privy to Lefty’s experience with whores and might be surprised to learn he harbored any thoughts at all about the hired ladies. But compare the Eugenides’ paragraph to a similar one of forbidden lust among siblings, a snippet taken from Vladamir Nabakov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Romance:
“He watched Ada’s bracelet flash in rhythm with the swaying of the victoria and her full lips, parted slightly in profile, show in the sun the red pollen of a remnant of salve drying in the transversal thumbnail lines of their texture. He opened his eyes: the bracelet was indeed flashing but her lips had lost all trace of rouge, and the certainty that in another moment he would touch their hot pale pulp threatened to touch off a private crises under the solemn load of another child.”
In Eugenides’ version, mechanical prose embodies the character’s self-shame upon looking at his corseted sister; with Nabakov, shame is absent and instead, the reader experiences lush and exuberant prose describing carnal lust. While Eugenides’ might rightly object that his male character is not the same as Nabakov’s, that Lefty, unlike Van, is conflicted and feels the guilty pricks of broken notions of morality, the author would be hard-pressed to account for the wooden sentences, the stilted and perfunctory exposition, the lack of exuberance or titillation of the forbidden. Reading the entirety of the text of Ada and comparing it to the brother-sister love portions of Middlesex will bring forth the conclusion that Nabakov uses language to illuminate characters’ minds and hearts to the reader. Eugenides uses words to move from one scene to the next.
Comparing any author’s prose to that of Nabakov’s and finding it lacking should, rightfully, elicit cries of foul from admirers of the author’s works (and the author himself.) After all, anyone can excerpt powerful sections of prose from a master and pronounce another work on the same subject as the classic’s lesser. And readers (good readers) should not be keeping a score chart for each turn of phrase and each paragraph. Literature should not be judged by the combination of pretty words alone.
And it would be unfair to pronounce portions of Middlesex as inferior to portions of Ada without acknowledging the significant authorial gifts Eugenides possesses: a commendable attentiveness to period details that span multiple decades, continents and multiple ethnicities; a pitch-perfect ear for sarcastic dialogue exhibited by the well-educated, trans-Atlantic professional set; a faithful and refreshing loyalty to plot and characterization, absent in so much of the writing of Eugenides’ contemporaries. Where Nabakov’s prose is lush in most places, it plods in minutiae in others, forcing the reader to pit tenacity against literary tedium.
Middlesex prose also, in some respects, improves upon the book most immediately resembling the problem of its story. Arcadio by the late William Goyen tells the story of a runaway from the freak show, a hermaphrodite. The beginning of the book introduces a rabbit hunter telling the story of how he happened upon the main character bathing in the river:
“I looked back and saw, in the early twilight that was already falling, the bending and gathering and tossing figure, glistening with water, washing itself; and then twas when I saw that it twas part a man and part a woman, the man part was sweetly washing the woman part and the woman sweetly the man, the woman part baptizing the man and the man baptizing the woman.”
Goyen’s prose evokes mysticism and myth, telling the story of a sexually abused and mocked child possessing characteristics of both sexes. As does Cal in Middlesex, Arcadio becomes part of the freak show, earning money off the pity and gawking of others. But where Arcadio’s story is told in a dreamy, meandering pastiche of Spanglais that can confuse the reader as to the exact nature of Arcadio’s composition and disposition toward the events of the novel, Eugenides allows the reader to benefit from his meditations on Cal’s views toward his condition and the ancillary characters in the story. Middlesex provides engrossing (if somewhat too-conveniently discovered) doctor’s notes of Cal’s condition and when Cal joins the freak show, introduces a character who gives a political and social context for hermaphroditism in 1974 and introduces Cal to the term “intersex.” Goyen wants readers to feast on the beauty of the sexes mingled in a single person but Arcadio never reads like a real person of real human flesh, only a romanticized myth. In Middlesex the characters are utterly convincing (albeit described with flat prose that can accompany this brand of realism) and the book evinces a plot to hang the story on. Without revealing too much of the outcome, Middlesex offers a porno king, a road trip across America, a car chase, a teenage romance and a kidnapping drama. All of this and the inter-family marriages literally populating the drama! Where Arcadio falters with the basic elements of sustained suspense in a storyline, Middlesex excels.
Middlesex will not please everyone. Though it is readable, the prose is not rich and though the characters are believable, they are not towering or majestic. It is unlikely that Cal will rise from the novel as a memorable dramatic figure born from the first part of the twenty-first century. But Eugenides, doubtless, did not intend Cal to tower over the gates of modern literature as a differently constructed adventurous Ahab or Huckleberry Finn. Middlesex is a great story, relying more on the welcome “old-fashioned” craft of plot, characterization and above all, a point for the narrator to convey. If the prose falters in some places, the story is more than strong enough to carry the reader to a satisfying conclusion.
Mr. Eugenides’ book is available for purchase at Powell’s.