Jeffrey Eugenides,
(Bloomsbury, 2002)

Going in, I was certain I knew what I was getting myself into. A coming-of-age story about a (genetically speaking) male coming to terms with his ambiguous genitalia? Assuredly new territory for me, but surely I was ready. Even so, Jeffrey Eugenides' second novel, Middlesex, is nothing like my expectations led me to believe. Put bluntly, the book is unlike any other piece of fiction I have ever come across. This is due in part to two main reasons:

1) The subject matter. We are talking about an intersexed (neither male nor female) person as the main character. And more importantly, 2) Jeffrey Eugenides' complex narrative, which weaves between the past and the present, from the mind of narrator Cal Stephanides to other members of his family.

Now, Cal is not a preachy narrator, describing the various pitfalls he has encountered with his disorder, so that we as readers can feel bad for him. This, in fact, has nothing to do with what the novel is actually about, or Eugenides' reasons for undertaking such an ambitious, elaborate story. It's far deeper than that, concerning itself more with how Cal got here in the first place than with his daily activity now that he's on Earth.

Most chapters begin with the present-day Cal describing how last night's date went, the state of his love life or what's going on at work. These updates really only last for a page or so tops, and never more than that. That's because the bulk of the story, the meat, is in the past, specifically the life and times of his grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, and then eventually his parents, Milton and Tessie. It isn't until a few hundred pages in that Calliope Stephanides is finally born, and readers, much like myself, finally learn about Cal's personal life, rather than the beings responsible for birthing a child with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency.

Typical epic stories like this one focus on just one character growing up, going through changes and the like. What separates Middlesex from other such tales, though, is that Eugenides repeats this formula for far more characters than merely Cal. We meet siblings Lefty and Desdemona at an early age and follow them both fairly closely up until the birth of Cal's parents, Milton and Tessie. The narrative then concentrates on this new set of characters, and so on. It's a highly original, utterly complex and completely unique (so far as I know) way to tell a story, detailing how exactly an astonishing, recessive trait could ever pass down the family tree and blossom in one certain offspring.

Though only Eugenides' second novel to date -- The Virgin Suicides precedes it -- Middlesex is Eugenides at his best. It is a high achievement in fiction writing, and will be near impossible to beat should Eugenides publish a third time.

review by
Eric Hughes

2 August 2008

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