Monday, April 9, 2012

Modern Greek epic in five chromosomes

Book: Middlesex

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

Published: 2002 (Picador)

Pages: 529

I wasn’t going to review this book since I’ve already reviewed a Eugenides book and it was one I hadn’t read before. But then he came to talk at the university I work for last week and so I bought a copy of this book for him to sign since it’s my favorite of his so technically this is a new book and then this happened and I wanted to show it off.

Yeah. Plus it’s worth contrasting this experience with the long-ass road trip to Indiana during which I read a library copy that was falling apart the whole time because I didn’t have my driver’s license yet and thus couldn’t share any of the driving.

So! It’s still a story about a big, extended, inbred Greek family that produces our hermaphroditic protagonist Callie, who is raised a girl until puberty when her male characteristics push through and freak everybody out. Her parents take her to a clinic in New York to get “fixed,” but she runs away and joins a seedy sex joint out West until her dad dies in a car accident while he’s chasing down a family friend who pretends to be Callie’s kidnapper.

But, but, before all that, her grandparents are brother and sister in the Old Country. Not long-lost, not raised apart in the same village, not even well-there’s-no-one-else-alive. They love each other, they lust after each other, they pretend to meet and then actually get married on the boat they ride to America to flee the destructive Turks. It’s never played for symbolic or hopelessly romantic. And a couple generations later, it produces Cal and her problems.

Eugenides is even more of a straightforward writer than I remember. The paperback I bought this time looks/feels a lot smaller than the giant unraveling hardback I read first, but there are over 500 pages so I didn’t get shorted any story. The Old World saga of that recessive chromosome took up a lot more of the story than I remember, rendering Callie’s Western trek and homecoming to a couple chapters. But I am very fond of Old World sagas. That explained Callie more thoroughly than her own fifteen years could by themselves, though they were laid out in detail, too.

It’s not decorative. The most poetic he gets is describing Callie’s development as a stalk and frankly, I don’t think there’s a better word for it the way he described how it grew and felt in her. But the lack of lyricism really brings the subject matter down to earth, especially when all Cal really wants is to be a normal human.

I would recommend reading this first if you want to get into Eugenides, then The Virgin Suicides, then The Marriage Plot. Sort of in descending order of his subjects’ sensationalism to land yourself gently back on the regular ground of lit fic angst.  

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