Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Enough with the Negativity Already!

I noticed I've been talking a lot about shit I hate recently, so I thought I'd give myself the pleasure of saying a few words about Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I of course had heard a lot of buzz about the book when it came out a few years ago, but I didn't really pay attention. I have a lingering prejudice against so-called "literary" fiction, born out of my experiences in the 1970s, when Donald Barthelme and his character-is-all school seemed to have banished plot entirely. (I know it's not all like that now; that's why it's a prejudice.) Anyway, that means I never register what's up for the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Whatever, because it always seems unlikely that those books will ever hold any interest for me.

I might never have changed my mind about Middlesex if it hadn't been recommended by Abigail Nussbaum. Even with her brief review, and even knowing that the title referred to a boy raised as a girl and not the county in England, I didn't know what to expect. I vaguely guessed it was something very British, with tea and nannies. I could not have been more wrong, and was completely blown away.

Set mostly in Detroit in the '60s and '70s, Middlesex ranges fluidly backward to Turkey in the '20s to Berlin in the present to tell the story of Calliope Helen Stephanides, a biological male raised and treated as a female. With riffs on genetics, history, politics, growing up ethnic in a WASPy world, family, race, the suburbs, and Cadillacs, this is a funny, tragic, eloquent book, with many memorable passages and images.

Part of the fun for me is that Cal is almost exactly my own age. He experienced many of the things I experienced growing up. Like me, he lived through the race riots of the '60s (way more up close and personal than I did, however); his teenage medicine cabinet is filled with Psst instant shampoo and Love deodorant; schoolgirls use Flair pens. (The minorest of quibbles: noone drank bottled water in 1973.) One thing he doesn't really talk about much is Callie's clothes. Did Callie the girl, like me and so many girls our age, fight with her mother about wearing jeans instead of skirts? Would she have experienced them as liberation or as another threat to her precarious gender identity, as with her refusal to cut her hair?

Another gripping, not so fun, aspect of the book is Callie's eventual diagnosis as a hermaphrodite. I think a lot of people can identify with Cal's horror at the realization that, beyond the normal insecurities of adolescence, there really is something different about him. And that what's more, his parents, who supposedly know him the best and love him the most, think he is fundamentally flawed, wrong, broken, in need of fixing. For me, this resonated very deeply with my experience of growing up fat.

In some ways, the book reminded me strongly of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose in the way Cal reconstructs the lives of his grandparents in an effort to understand and cope with his own situation. Like Lyman Ward, Cal must fully accept his own difference before he can let others in and accept love. I only wish this part of the story -- Cal's final achievement of intimacy with a woman after 30 years of loneliness -- had been more deeply explored.

Edited June 8 to add: I may have been late on the Middlesex bandwagon, but at least I beat Oprah!

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