Book Review: Middlesex

Although Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex was published in 2002, the story carries more relevance today, given the recent “bathroom bill” controversy and other nationwide discussions pertaining to our understanding of gender identity.

md20527819112However, this story is more than about sexual orientation and non-binary genders. Middlesex incorporates a wide range of intertwined themes that encompasses the pursuit for identity which include an immigrant’s ‘rebirth’ in a new world, the clash between traditional and modernity, the battle between old-world superstitions and reason, teenage angst, sexual discovery, the bleakness of old age, the inevitability of death, and generational gaps.

Our protagonist, Calliope Stephenides is a Detroit-born, third-generation, Greek-American. During her teenage years, she discovers an unsavory revelation about her true sexual identity. This triggers an existential crisis, setting her on a journey to conceptualize her sense of self in relation to her biology. 

Calliope’s parents, Milton and Tessie, are first-cousins. If that isn’t scandalous enough for your sensibilities, you might want to brace yourself before you read this next sentence. In addition to being a product of a first-cousin marriage, Calliope’s paternal grandparents are siblings!

Yes, you read that correctly.

Calliope’s grandparents, Eleutherios (Lefty) and Desdemona, were orphans residing in Bithynios, near Smyrna (present-day Izmir) in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) during the early 1920s. Their parents were killed in the on-going conflicts between the Greeks and the Turks so they only had each other to rely upon. Somehow, inexplicably, their intimate sibling bond mutated into carnal lust. I suppose the Westermarck Effect did not apply to them. When Lefty and Desdemona finally managed to escape the carnage in their beloved yet irredeemable homeland, they did what so many immigrants did upon arriving in America. They constructed a new identity for themselves.

In their native village, Lefty and Desdemona were brother and sister. However, in their new home in Detroit, Lefty and Desdemona became newlyweds. And other than their Americanized cousin, Soumelina, who harbored a sordid secret of her own, nobody knew otherwise.

It is heavily implied, throughout the novel, that Calliope’s unusual gender orientation is rooted in her grandparents’ decision to procreate.cara

Now, it should be pointed out that not all intersex people are the result of incestuous relationships. Many literary critics have lambasted Eugenides for implying that to be the case. However, I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt. In my opinion, I think Eugenides just wanted to write a story that heavily touched on multiple taboo subjects, including incest and non-binary genders.

We are a society rooted in Abrahamic tradition. According to our holy texts, God created us as male and female. And you can’t argue with the sacred.

However, recent developments in psychology and medical science have concluded that gender is a lot more complicated than we had originally anticipated. Yes, 99% of us fall into the categories of male or female. However, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the 1% who don’t. Those who are transgendered, or afflicted with medical conditions like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia or 5-Alpha Reductase Deficiency (like Calliope) are just as human as the rest of us. It’s regrettably disheartening to see the genuine concerns of non-binary people be dismissed as “special snowflake saltiness” due to our puritanical proclivities.

Middlesex has been rightfully branded by the Metro Times as ” the Detroit Epic Novel”. The majority of this story occurs within the backdrop of a perpetually-changing Detroit. The beginning of the novel depicts our protagonist’s grandparents arriving in, what was then, a relatively small but bustling town. Throughout the novel, we witness the up-and-coming industrial hub gradually evolve into “the arsenal of democracy” during the Second World War before despairingly devolving into the “no tax-base, white-flight, murder-capital of the Coleman Young administration”. We receive an in-depth narrative of the infamous 1967 riots, leading numerous affluent White residents to abandon their homes and businesses in Detroit and embark on an exodus towards the suburban towns of Grosse Pointe (including Grosse Pointe Park and Grosse Pointe Farms), Sterling Heights, and Livonia (aka, my hometown).

In addition, Middlesex also invests pages into covering aspects of Detroit history that are usually glossed over by the textbooks. Most Americans aren’t aware that the Black-supremacist Nation of Islam was originally founded in Detroit. Nor do they comprehend the historical context in which the Nation of Islam was established. Jeffrey Eugenides succinctly highlights the motives of this unusual organization and its overall impact on the city.

Middlesex is written as a first-person narrative, so we’re able to further empathize with Calliope through her/his inner thoughts and conflicted feelings. I think Eugendies brilliantly conceptualized Calliope’s personality. Despite being a fictional character, the narration allows us to perceive Calliope as a real-life person.

What I find most intriguing is how Calliope refers to certain people in her life. Normally, our siblings are our first best friends (as opposed to being lovers in the case of Lefty and Desdemona!). The bond between siblings is impenetrable. However, Calliope always refers to her brother as “Chapter Eleven”. It’s not an affectionate nickname that most of us would refer to our brothers or sisters. The name “Chapter Eleven” references Calliope’s brother’s fault in leading their father’s business into bankruptcy. In fact, the term “Chapter Eleven” refers to bankruptcy laws. However, some literary critics have cleverly deduced that the “nickname” also refers to the emotional bankruptcy of that sibling relationship.

In a way, the novel depicts two polarizing extremes pertaining to siblings. Desdemona and Lefty occupy one extreme where the line between familial love and sexual desire is nonexistent. Calliope and her/his brother occupy the other extreme where the two, despite having grown up in the same home, regard each other as nothing more than strangers.

I’m not surprised that Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize. I can’t imagine a novel like this not being lavishly celebrated with accolades. Jeffrey Eugenides’ prose is  vivid, witty, ironic and charming. He has the rare talent of eloquently describing a baby pissing on a priest during a baptism ceremony.

“From between my cherubic legs a stream of crystalline liquid shot into the air…propelled by a full bladder, it cleared the lip of the font and struck Father Mike right in the middle of the face!”

If you’re not planning to drive to your local library to check out this book, you’ll be missing out.

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