Middlesex

by Jeffrey Eugenides

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in·ter·sexˈintərˌseks nounthe abnormal condition of being intermediate between male and female; hermaphroditism.

Overview

Middlesex chronicles three generations of the Stephanides family. Divided into three books and narrated by Calliope (Cal),
a 5-alpha-reductase Greek-American hermaphrodite identifying as a male, Middlesex tells the story of the Stephanides family's immigration to America and their assimilation. The novel follows the tale of a recessive gene passed through generations, that finally surfaced in Cal, who discovers at fourteen that she is really a he.

"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."


Author

Eugenides was born in Detroit, Michigan, to a father of Greek descent and an American mother. Euginides' hometown, heritage, and research all contributed to his writing of Middlesex. Set in both Detroit and Berlin, two places where the author lived, Middlesex contains elements taken from Eugenides' personal life--a somewhat ode to his parents and grandparents through minor details like bar signs. Eugenides used the rise and fall of Detroit between 1920 and 1970 as a backdrop for the action of Middlesex, which exemplified Eugenides' fascination with the city as his hometown. The end setting of the novel in Berlin served to highlight it's pervasive theme of division, "between Greeks and Turks, blacks and whites and, obviously, male and female".

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Interview Excerpt (Oprah):
Did you incorporate any of your own experiences growing up as a Greek-American into Middlesex?
I didn't only study up on genetics and history to write Middlesex. I studied up on myself, on my so-called ethnicity. I'm only half Greek, and that half is thoroughly Americanized. I didn't grow up in a Greek-American hothouse, and when my paternal grandparents died they took a large measure of my heritage with them. The immigrant customs I describe in Middlesex, the Orthodox rituals, the superstitions—most of that is a product of my reading, not my personal experience. I can recall the outlines of that lost immigrant world. It used to assemble, after all, every Sunday in our living room. But those people were old and spoke Greek while I was young and spoke only English. I drew on memories of mournful grandmothers and industrious great uncles. But I filled in these outlines with research, and imagination.
The actual inspiration for Middlesex as a novel stemmed from Eugenides' reading of Herculine Barbin: Memoir of a 19th Century French Hermaphrodite, which is the diary of a convent girl who is intersex. Eugenide's found himself disappointed in the evasiveness of the woman's story, and decided to write more to it, in a way--he aimed to contradict previous literature that tended to dehumanize hermaphrodites, describing their condition as almost mythological. Middlesex became an epic novel as Eugenides began to explore the relationship between Cal's hermaphrodism and incest. Inbreeding became a way to dramatize and add background to the Stephanides family story.

Much of Eugenides' writing has its roots in Greek mythology. The imagination behind Middlesex came from the figure of Tiresias, who had lived as both a male and a female. Eugenides was "struck by the marvelous utility of this figure, Tiresias...[Tiresias was] useful, from a literary standpoint. If the novelist's job is to go into the minds of both women and men, if we value most of all the writers who are best able to do this, then telling a story from the point of view of Tiresias (or someone like him) might gain the writer a measure of that longed-for omniscience". Rife with biblical allusions, Eugenides uses the Tiresias, and the idea of a metamorphosis, as the backbone of his novel, in an attempt "to retell an ancient myth of metamorphosis for our time, investing it with scientific information and medical information and biological facts". This research is prevalent in Eugenides' writing, as well: he took his undergraduate degree at Brown University, and earned his M.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University. Using Columbia's medical library and consultations with experts, Eugenides created both his time period and characters through a mix of science and imagination (he refused to meet intersex people during the writing process, preferring to rely on his own personal experience and his own behavior analysis to create Cal).

Eugenides' writing style comes from his great respect of "the ancient Latin poets, ...Vergil and Catullus. The great Russians, Tolstoy and Nabokov. And the great American Jews, Bellow and Roth. Plus Henry James, J.D. Salinger, [and] García Márquez".

Audio Clip: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12485470

Personal Connection


Despite being about a person whose situation is so far removed from everything I've ever experienced, Middlesex impacted me. Cal's voice throughout the novel was open and relatable: despite being hermaphroditic, Cal seemed to embody a more omniscient and universal attitude. The vivid detail that Jeffrey Eugenides includes in his work helped an unbelievable story become intriguing and relatable. Often, to me, postmodern novels seem to fall slightly too far on the side of metaphysical questioning--Middlesex, on the other hand, provoked deeper thoughts and strong emotional reactions without being overbearing. Eugenides' ability to take a dark and controversial subject matter and infuse the story with humor was refreshing yet at times disturbing; as the novel progressed the work became more psychological. At times, I wanted to throw the book in disgust--especially knowing what we currently do about incest and genetics, and the prevalent societal attitude against romantic familial relationships.
Cal as a narrator was integral in a deeper interpretation of the novel. Struggling with his sexuality, and more generally, his identity, the image of Cal as a hermaphrodite embodies not only a metamorphosis of body, but a metamorphosis of self. Cal is correlative to adolescence--in the words of the author--and in recognizing this, I was able to not only sympathize with Callie and she goes through a major period of question in her life but also to reflect on the anxieties I have about who I am. Middlesex gave me a new interpretation of what "difference" means, and how in reuniting and reconciling the conflicting parts of ourselves we can be successful. From a moral standpoint, Middlesex is controversial. The novel is epic and twisted, creating a struggle between reader and story that parallels the guilt and sexual tension between the stories characters; regardless, Eugenides is able to explain and entice readers into accepting and rooting for their love.

Reviews


Middlesex is award-winning (Pulitzer 2003) and a national bestseller, defined as equally comic and tragic and renowned as being a new classic of today, heralded for its "emotional abundance" and grace of writing. Eugenides writes with dense detail, and his setting of Detroit was praised. Noted for being discursive and funny, Middlesex is also praised for its accurate, poised, and sensitive description of the lives of intersex people. Despite this, critics also deemed Middlesex to be slightly underwhelming in its impact--it wasn't as moving as it was expected to me, for its ingeniousness. Critics also found the novel to be disjointed: as if Eugenides wrote a story about a hermaphrodite and about a Greek-American family and tried to force them together. Which side of the novel is "stronger" is up for debate: some critics argue that the two sides of Cal's story sapped meaning from each other, while others argue that the Greek/intersex tale is more meaningful and the other unpersuasive and unnecessary. The conclusion is often denounced for being rushed.
Eugenides writes with incredible eloquence--yet, to me, his novel was too short. As a novel encompassing the Stephanides' immigration to America and the story of the family that result in Cal becoming who he is, the novel is epic and beautifully detailed. The ending of the novel, however, chronicling Cal's life after his transformation, is lacking. Callie is compelling, as is the warmth which Eugenides infuses into his characters. Despite this, the majority of characters, outside of Calliope and Desdemona, felt lacking.



Works Cited



"Book Review: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides | EW.com." EW.com. N.p., 13 Sept. 2002. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
"A Conversation with Middlesex Author Jeffrey Eugenides." Oprah.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Goldstein, Bill. "A Novelist Goes Far Afield but Winds Up Back Home Again." The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 Dec. 2002. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
"'Middlesex' Author Jeffrey Eugenides." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
"Mighty Hermaphrodite by Daniel Mendelsohn." Mighty Hermaphrodite by Daniel Mendelsohn. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
"Pulitzer Prize Winner: Jeffrey Eugenides." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.