Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher/Year: Picador, 2003

There can be no doubt that Jeffrey Eugenides’ second novel Middlesex was most worthy of winning the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. Middlesex is a devastating story, drawn in with varying shades of humor, pain, love, lust and betrayal. It is a powerful tale, raw, almost hypersensitive in its account of teenage angst and familial deceptions. It is a mesmerizing journey, soaring and grounding like a roller coaster ride out of control. Eugenides has constructed a hypnotic epic story and hero/ine, both of which the heart and mind stubbornly refuse to relinquish long, long after you have moved on to the next novel.

This odd and yet completely believable novel starts with what may be the greatest opening sentence of the past decade, “I was born twice, as a baby girl, on a remarkable 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.” And thus begins the remarkable and riveting story of Calliope Helen Stephanides, or Cal, a 41-year-old hermaphrodite once thought to be the only daughter of middle-class parents.

The genius of Eugenides’ story lies 80 years in the past, in a family history stained with incest and a resulting rogue gene. It all starts in Turkey during the 1920’s where a fateful union of brother and sister sets off the events that come to shape Cal’s destiny. From there, the story leaps to Detroit during Prohibition, to the defining race riots of 1967, to the suburban middle-class existence of Grosse Pointe in the 1970s, and finally to Berlin in the present-day.

Throughout these settings, Eugenides taps into the confusing and aching adolescent love stories that create the basis of the story. He begins with Cal’s grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, delicately lending windows of insight into the culture and environment that sanctioned the evolution of their suppressed desires. From there, he moves to their son Milton who achingly falls in love with his cousin Tessie, a union that compounds the genetic trail that would eventually lead to Cal.

It is with Cal/lie’s various explorations in sex and love that Eugenides truly hits his stride, deftly layering his prose to develop a lead character and story that begins in feminine youth and eventually leads to an equally confusing and aching masculine adult love story. Eugenides’ mastery of the written word makes the sexual discoveries Cal experiences during early adolescence jaw dropping. He captures the emotions and confusion of the time with such keen magnification that feelings of sympathy, admiration, and perhaps even jealousy may be sparked in the reader.

And this is a major reason why Middlesex works so splendidly, the relationship between Eugenides and his muse. Eugenides manages to switch between Cal/Callie without disrupting the balance of the narrative. He does this by carefully constructing weapons of insight for the character—intelligence, insight, humor—that are transferable between both identities regardless of gender formation. The fluidity with which Eugenides moves between these identities propels the story forward at an astounding pace, leaving you slightly breathless in the wake of its detail and lyricism.

Eugenides has managed to do what few authors ever have--produce a story as elegant, as haunting, as enriching as their debut work (The Virgin Suicides). And while it may have taken ten years for Eugenides to release his Homer-esque sophomore effort, it is clear that those were not idle years. Middlesex is absolutely transfixing in its complexity and simplicity. There is little doubt that this momentous and exhilarating novel is going to occupy a place of honor as a literary masterpiece for decades to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment