This is a Bloc Club post, where we invite a writer to discuss this month's Bloc Club book, Middlesex.
Look, I haven’t read The Virgin Suicides. I know I should have, not least because it was required reading for one of my creative writing classes, and I went ahead and wrote a response to it anyway (thanks for the Credit, Ms P). I know it’s a cult classic, this debut novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, and I’m probably doing myself a disservice by not simply plucking it down from my shelf and giving it a go. What can I say? I’ve just never found myself to be in the mood.
And because I’d never read The Virgin Suicides, I always felt too guilty to read Middlesex, Eugenides’ second novel. He published it in 2002, nine years after Suicides. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003 and has sold over three million copies to date. Clearly, the dude can write.
I read it by accident, in July last year. I needed a novel to take with me to Greece and suddenly there was Middlesex, looking hapless and haphazard in a hostel book exchange. I took it. It was a fat book and I needed nourishing. It did the job; I read its pages and was satiated. For Middlesex is unquestionably, unfalteringly good. I could really just wrap up this review right here, with that remark, but I don’t think my editor would be thrilled with me if I did. So, in the interest of keeping the peace, let me tell why you ought to read Middlesex.
First of all, you won’t help but fall in love with Calliope ‘Cal’ Stephanides, the book’s hero/ine and narrator, who is an absolute pleasure to listen to (and at 500 plus pages, you’d want them to be). In their own words, Cal is ‘born twice’: first as a baby girl in Detroit in 1960, then again, as a teenage boy in 1974. Cal bears the genetic cross of his ancestry, a recessive gene that produces in him a sort of male pseudo-hermaphroditism; he is chromosomally male but presents as physically female, resulting in a misidentification at birth and a subsequent childhood raised as a girl, as Callie. It isn’t until puberty that the error is caught and Callie’s life is given the opportunity to course-correct.
Middlesex is as much a family saga about how Cal’s recessive gene was carried forward through generations of the Stephanides clan as it is a coming of age story about how she became he. Cal (living as a 40-something man in Berlin at the time of his narration) takes us back in time, to before he was a man, even before he was a girl, way back to 1922 and the escape and emigration of his Greek grandparents from Asia Minor to America. Here follows about 200 pages of delicious preamble, stuffed full of the masterful storytelling and extraordinary social observations that (I assume) won Eugenides such acclaim for The Virgin Suicides. “All of a sudden America wasn't about hamburgers and hot rods anymore. It was about the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock. It was about something that had happened for two minutes four hundred years ago, instead of everything that had happened since. Instead of everything that was happening now.”
Through his retelling, we learn what events conspired in the familial history of Desdemona, Lefty, Milton and Tessie Stephanides to produce our 5-Alpha-Reductase deficient narrator. It’s a broad, ambitious canvas for a novel, but Eugenides succeeds in filling it in with colour entire. By the time the narrative catches up to Cal, you’ll find yourself already endeared to him. Personally, I felt invested, protective even, of this central character I’d eagerly waited half a book to meet.
It goes without saying that questions of identity form the basis of the novel’s greatest thematic exploration, but it isn’t just Cal’s transformation that’s compelling here. Equally so are the quests of his grandparents and parents, as brothers and sisters are remade as husbands and wives, refugees of the old world become citizens of the new one, and once-happy people grow into something else, while in the background history propels the narrative ever forward, Eugenides leading us by the hand through the Great Depression, Prohibition, World War II, the Detroit race riots and Watergate. We follow him obediently, gladly, awed by his level of detail and delighted by the humour he manages to create in spite of the sorrow much of the plot exudes. (“German wasn’t good for conversation because you had to wait to the end of the sentence for the verb, and so couldn’t interrupt”).
Eugenides’ prose is lovely; his metaphors for the most part pleasurably original. Often, his best writing is done on his native Detroit, as well as on the subject of America and the American Dream. “‘This is my country,’ Lefty said, and to prove it, he did a very American thing: he reached under the counter and produced a pistol.” If there’s anything to fault, and truly I’ve had to look for something, it’s a few rushed, conveniences in the plot that, when compared to the craft and intricacies of the greater narrative, seem cheap. But he’s got a Pulitzer and I don’t so I’m not going to throw shade at the man.
Like the protagonist, like Cal himself, you should be prepared to start Middlesex one way and finish it another. I came out the other side exhausted, haunted, but also triumphant and weirdly life-affirmed (and okay, a little drunk on Greek-cheap cocktails). I waited until I was 24 to lose my Eugenides virginity and it felt like the perfect book to lose it to. I just wish I hadn’t waited so long.
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Tim McGuire is a freelance writer from Brisbane. His writing has appeared in The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Going Down Swinging, The Weekend Australian and The Courier-Mail. In 2015, he was longlisted for the inaugural Richell Writing Prize for Emerging Writers. Not very often, he tweets from @twfmcguire.