Chapter 45: “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003)

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’ I’d like to show how ‘intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members’ connects with ‘the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.’ I’d like to have a word for ‘the sadness inspired by failing restaurants’ as well as for ‘the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.’ I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. ”

Now that my second (or third) (or fourth) round of unemployment is rapidly drawing to a close, I wanted to step up my end of this Project by reading at least another couple of books before I went back to work on January 23. After Angle of Repose nearly destroyed my ambition to read anything at all ever again, I wanted to read something that would, once again, make me believe in the mystical, magical, mind-expanding power of literature. I went to the boxes upon boxes upon boxes of books that I have packed away – books that haven’t seen the light of day in almost two years, to figure out which one would be the next check-off on my list of Pulitzers.

The very first box I opened, the book sitting right on top, shining and glistening, calling out to me, smiling at me was Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2003 winner, Middlesex. I remembered Joshua telling me how amazing it was, so I rescued it from the catacombs of my storage closet and stuffed it in my satchel. The fact that I was going to be spending a lot of time in Michigan over the week or two that I planned on reading it was a confirmation in my mind that I made the right choice. Another confirmation came when I walked into the living room with it and my roommate exclaimed, “Middlesex! You’re reading that? I’m friends with a girl whose great-grandpa is mentioned in that book. He’s the town drunk. It’s a really brief scene, but it’s in there somewhere.”

It also served as a really nice follow-up to the sprawling (and energy-draining) epic that was Angle of Repose since, again, this book was the story of a couple generations of a family. The difference between these two books was that Eugenides is clearly a much better writer than Wallace Stegner.

While I was the reading the book in Holland, Michigan, visiting my girlfriend’s family for Christmas, her mother said, “Middlesex? That’s a street in my hometown!” “Oh really? Well, this is probably the same street because this book takes place in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.” “I know Grosse Pointe! I grew up in Detroit!” I spent the next half hour or so reciting names of buildings, and addresses, and buildings, and companies to her, to see if she knew where the things were. Nine times out of ten, she did.

That was one of the things that impressed me most about this novel – Eugenides’s amazing and impeccable attention to detail. I later found out that this book is semi-autobiographical in that the author used real names, places, and events from his own life and incorporated them into the book. Eugenides himself once stated:

Because the story is so far from my own experience, I had to use a lot of details from my own life to ground it in reality, to make it believable for me and then hopefully for the reader, as well. So I would use my own physical appearance. I would use details from my grandparents’ life, the streets they lived on, the kinds of places they lived. And all this made it real for me because it was a tall order to write such a story.

I was also completely inspired by the story of the three generations of the Stephanides family – from the first generation’s treacherous (and scandalous) marriage and journey from war-torn Greece to America; to the second generation’s commitment to the pursuit of the American Dream; to the third generation’s own struggles with their society, their identities, their family.

There are all sorts of themes running throughout the course of this novel that a literary critic could spend hours writing about, but since the point of this blog is to chronicle our progress and our reactions to these Pulitzer-winning novels, I’m not going to even attempt to try to offer an in-depth critique or analysis. Seriously, I could spend hours talking about the Grecian mythological references, the delicate balance between innocence and knowledge that each character in the novel faces, themes of rebirth, of race relations, gender relations, and identity crises. However, this blog is not the platform for that sort of writing.

(I only make sure to emphasize that point because of a comment I recently received on my review of The Stories of John Cheever, where an anonymous fellow said, “Nice critique. With that sort of in-depth analysis, I’m sure you’ll pass the eighth grade.” Again, we’re not expert literary critics – Joshua and I are merely chronicling our reactions to these books)

It will suffice to say that I enjoyed this book thoroughly. Deep within my spirit, there is a small flame of passion for the written word that burns, and this book blew strong gusts of wind inside me and turned to that smoldering fire into a blazing inferno. This book excited me, it connected with me emotionally, it made me think, it made me question the world around me.

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For the first 400 pages, I couldn’t put the book down. It was a genuine “page-turner.” I couldn’t wait to start the next chapter to see what would happen to all of the characters – to see how their stories played out. The pacing was a sprint toward the finish line, which kind of simmered into a brisk jog. But then things slowed way down to a lazy amble towards the end, only to pick right back up to violent gallop as the book came to a finish.

And herein lays my only complaint about this book – the concluding hundred or so pages, when Calliope runs away from his/her gender reassignment surgery, hitchhikes across the country from New York City to San Francisco, becomes employed by a strip club, then moves back home after the violent and jarring death of her father are so fast-paced and so strange that they really just seemed like a blur of random events, awkwardly strung together. This is the analogy I used when I talked to Joshua about it during our scheduled “chat about the last book we finished” conversation: “You know how, when you’re sitting in a church and the preacher is just going on and on and on, but you’re really into it so it doesn’t seem like time is going by that quickly? Then, all of a sudden, he says something like ‘I’ve been prattling on too long; I must hurry to a close,’ so he starts racing through the last points of his sermon and they just don’t make sense because he’s not taking his time to expound on his thoughts? Yeah – this book was a lot like that. It was as if Eugenides knew he was getting way too close to his book being way too long, so he just started ‘hurrying to a close.'”

However, I must admit, if my only complaint about a book that comes to close to being 600 pages in length is that the last couple hundred or so pages went by too fast… That’s really not that much of a complaint. In fact, it may even be more of a compliment to Eugenides’s superior writing abilities. He seized my attention from the get-go and he didn’t let go for one page – not for one paragraph – for more than 500 pages.

This was one of those novels that I didn’t want to end. But, like George Harrison once sang, “All things must pass.”

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UPDATE (04.17.2014): I just realized that “middlesex” has a double meaning. Two and a half years later…

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