Middlesex, by novelist Jeffrey Eugenides (author of The Virgin Suicides), traces that very American saga, the tribulations and triumphs of the immigrant family. Along the way we become intimately familiar with a family of Greeks, survivors of a Turkish massacre, who cross the seas and reinvent themselves in Detroit. The central figure is third-generation Calliope/Cal, surely the most engaging character of the intersexual (hermaphrodite) minority ever to arrive on the page¨indeed others like Cal don't readily spring to mind. Eugenides does not fail to remind us of Cal's antecedents, particularly T.S. Eliot's Teresias; still, they remain sparse on the literary ground. Taking full advantage of this largely unexplored fictional terrain, Eugenides spins variations on familiar themes. The common hell of adolescence, for instance, well documented in novels, is ratcheted up a big notch when the teenager changes genders. The result is an almost hypnotically readable book, in equal parts comic and tragic, rather like the Greek myths that Eugenides, himself of Greek ancestry, sprinkles throughout his text.
Like all stories about escape, this one begins with a journey, albeit one anchored firmly, if ironically, in the Homeric tradition. "Sing now O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!" Our narrator is Cal, nT Calliope, a reclusive forty-one-year-old who works for the State Department in Berlin. He remains firmly at the controls of "this roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time," the story not of an intrepid Greek hero, but of a tenacious "5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudo-hermaphrodite," born first as a girl, and then, fourteen years later, as a boy. His third birth, Cal informs us, is now due; he feels compelled not only to deliver himself of his tangled family history but also to emerge from the chrysalis of seeming like a man into actual manhood. In other words, he has met a girl. But how can he confess the truth before he has his own history sorted? Writing it all down will, he hopes, free him from the prison of his past.
The controlling myth in Middlesex, a novel that delves deeply into ways of escape from various labyrinths, naturally concerns Theseus and the Minotaur. Given that Cal is eventually revealed as something of a "monster" himself, he feels some sympathy for the half-man, half-bull creature that lived in the heart of the maze. The attempts by Cal's grandparents, especially his grandmother Desdemona, to elude the grasp of heredity have had decidedly mixed results. As the history of Cal's grandparents, natives of Asia Minor, unfolds, so does Eugenides's genius for choosing metaphors that perfectly encapsulate his characters' struggles. The window to the past opens with the young Desdemona, her parents dead, her brother Lefty preparing to leave their mountain top village to descend into town to sell their crop of silkworm cocoons. It's 1922, and Eugenides describes what Desdemona sees: "the old Ottoman capital of Bursa. Like a backgammon board spread out across the valley's green feltÓRed diamonds of roof tile fit into diamonds of whitewash. Here and there, the sultans' tombs were stacked up like bright chips." Lefty, singing a Jazz tune, is the modern man; he will conduct business in the town, smoke hashish, gamble, and visit a brothel, while his sister worries that her impure thoughts will spoil the delicate silkworm cocoons she has nurtured.
But another move in the game suggested by the backgammon-board landscape is about to begin. Before Desdemona can fulfill her mother's dying wish that she arrange her brother's marriage, the Turks attack. The town of Smyrna is torched. She and Lefty escape with their lives; they also rescue a physician who has been kind to Lefty. Dr. Philobosian, an Armenian whose family has been slaughtered, remains in the narrative as the aged family doctor who misses the signs of Cal's peculiar genital configuration. These early scenes are among the novel's most engrossing. A master of allusion, Eugenides subtly positions all the pieces on his game board: the family history of flight, the consanguinity that ensures Cal's special gene also joins the voyage to America, the drive to survive and prosper embodied by Lefty, the pull of the old world that imprisons Desdemona, who, says Cal, uses her worry beads, "like all the Stephanides men before and after her (right down to me, if I count)."
As ships depart with the survivors of the massacre, Eugenides writes of the scene: "It was the custom in those days for passengers leaving for America to bring a ball of yarn on deckÓPropellers churned, handkerchiefs fluttered, and, up on the deck, the balls of yarn began to spinÓRed, yellow, blue, green, they untangled toward the pier, slowly at firstÓthen faster and faster as the boat picked up speedÓfinally the balls ran outÓThe strings of yarn flew free, rising on the breeze." But the threads connecting the Stephanides family to the past don't become airborne¨not until Cal sets down the family history years later. In fact, with Cal's birth, they are wound even more tightly, so that what we witness is a variation on the myth of handsome young Theseus finding his way through the labyrinth with the help of his lover. In Middlesex, the "monster" demands recognition too; Calliope/Cal will not be disposed of by any passing interloper.
When the family arrives in Detroit, Lefty, the gambler and risk-taker, joins the flourishing trade in illegal alcohol established by his cousin's husband, an intriguing character called Zizmo, who will reappear in a later incarnation as a black activist. Metamorphosis is second nature to many of Eugenides's peripheral characters, while the main players¨except Cal who has no choice in the matter¨cling as closely as fate will allow to their hard won American identity. In a bid to protect his investment in his bar, The Zebra Room, Milton, Cal's father, plays the part of the lone gunman during the Detroit riots of the 60s. His daughter (as she still was) is drawn to his side, following a tank through the familiar streets of the old neighbourhood. Occasionally, as here, it seems the family's adventures are being forced to reflect the politics of their adopted country rather too closely. At other times, as when Milton, having found success running a string of hot dog stands, joins the "white flight" from the inner city, and buys a modernist house in affluent Grosse Pointe that no one else wants (or a Greek couldn't buy it), the whole episode rings true. The house, with large windows designed to let in the light¨and perhaps the truth¨is on a street called Middlesex.
The most dramatic section of the American saga occurs in otherwise bland Grosse Point. Calliope becomes enamoured of a girl called the Obscure Object, after a girl in a Luis Bunuel movie. (In a nice touch, her 'true' identity remains politely hidden by Cal.) Eugenides's beautifully written account of the agonies of adolescent love was excerpted in The New Yorker, and deserves every bit of the admiring attention it received. If only the Object's brother hadn't also fallen in love with Calliope the summer they vacationed with the siblings' wealthy parents in the Michigan woods, all might have been well. Or not. The long period of family worry about her failure to mature as a girl should, abruptly ends. When she is concussed after fleeing the brother and running into a tractor, the doctors in the local Emergency Room diagnose what Dr. Philobosian missed all those years. Plunged into a "monster" identity, then threatened with a surgical solution that will make her into a "normal" woman (without a womb, but still), Cal, true to family traits, flees for his very life.
Yet Cal's initial period of adaptation to his "freakish" identity is among the least satisfactory episodes in the narrative. Eugenides delivers a lot of information from a wise fellow intersexual whom Cal meets while performing in a sex show act in California. "Zora had Androgen InsensitivityÓher body was immune to male hormonesÓThough XY like me, she had developed along male linesÓBut she had done it far better than I hadÓAside from being blonde, she was shapely and full-lippedÓAnd then there was her figure, the milk-maid breasts, the swim champ stomach, the legs of a sprinter or a Martha Graham dancer." Not only that, but she is busy¨between shows one imagines¨writing a history, to be called The Sacred Hermaphrodite, and lectures the eager Cal on the special gender to which they both belong. "Remember, Cal. Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. The Navajo understand this. If a person wants to switch her gender, they let her." And so on. Zora, with her "fairy's eyes, paisley-shaped, blue and glacial-looking" is the godmother young Cal needs. "We're what's next," she assures Cal, sounding spookily like an alien.
Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Cal's parents are not coping well with their daughter's disappearance. The operatic plot twists in Michigan are almost as weird as the experiences Cal undergoes in his lost months in San Francisco. Frankly, it's a relief when Cal returns to the cocoon of his family, where at last, all is understood. As this roller coaster ride through the past finally slows, Cal's life in Berlin has begun to progress in a more truthful direction. Middlesex is a novel that's hard to sum up: a lively, off-the-wall adventure, a spectacular unveiling of one family's history, replete with medical and mythical lore. If a Greek named Calliope/Cal had been asked the secret of life, she/he might have counselled playing the game this way: You can't move forward until you've looked back and seen how all the pieces fit. Follow the thread, he/she might have said, and you will find your freedom. ˛