A tale of two half-lives

“Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2003, Jeffrey Eugenides’ ‘Middlesex’ is a story which is timeless in its theme and structure,” writes Praveen Palakkazhi.

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably 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.”

One of the more captivating opening lines of a novel I’ve read. I can imagine quite a few people would have been tempted to delve into this further, purely based on their reaction to that first line. And if they followed up on their instinct, there is very little chance that they would have been disappointed.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel ‘Middlesex’ is a sprawling and intensely emotional saga of one family, and its genetically ambiguous narrator. It doesn’t really let you go once you’re hooked from that first page. There are multiple themes at work here, from memories and ancestry, generational genetic makeup and incestuous relationships, to the decay of the quality of life of both people and cities (Detroit, in this case). However, if I was asked to describe its primary theme, what struck me was the central protagonist’s self-awakening and all the pain and magic that brings about. Finding our place in the world is tough enough for most people, but for someone born with a recessive intersex condition that went undetected till puberty it can be a nightmare.

To trace this rare genetic condition which expresses itself in the narrator, Calliope/Cal Stephanides, we have to go back to the start. Or, more precisely, the start of things which ended up with the 5-Alpha-Reductase Deficiency Syndrome manifesting in Cal. In the early part of the twentieth century, in a mountain village in Asia Minor, a sister, Desdemona, lives with her brother Lefty. Circumstances are forcing the Greeks and Armenians in this part of the world to flee from impending doom. The burning of Smyrna in 1922 is vividly recreated amongst this backdrop.

Lefty and Desdemona were always close since childhood, and as they make their perilous way to new hope in the USA, they enact a drama of intense longing to fool even themselves of their true relationship. Having left their home as siblings, they arrive at their destination as a newlywed couple. Their only contact there is Sourmelina, a cousin, who having her own perceived shame which she ran away from, is quick to accept and keep their secret. Sourmelina takes them to stay with her and her husband, the initially repellent but later enigmatically interesting Jimmy Zizmo, at their place in Detroit.

It’s a turbulent time for the country as a whole and especially for Detroit, a city which underwent massive upheavals in the twentieth century. The vivid descriptions of the once gleaming automobile manufacture center takes us into the life of the numerous factory workers, who eke out a dreary, functional existence in environments which are not very salubrious for their wellbeing in general. Lefty initially works at one of these mechanical towers while also getting involved in the shady doings of Jimmy Zizmo. However, after events turn for the worse, he being of an enterprising nature starts his own underground home drinking salon during the age of prohibition. Meanwhile, Desdemona is petrified by the perceived sin of what she and Lefty are doing and of what will become of their offspring. Almost reluctantly, she gives birth to a healthy boy and girl. The boy, Milton, grows up to be Cal’s father. Another bit of inbreeding ensures that Milton marries his cousin, thus further bringing Cal closer to his fate.

Cal’s elder brother is referred to throughout as Chapter Eleven, a narrative device which is not explicitly explained in the book, but which on further reading I found may be related to a US statute. When Calliope finally enters the world, her gender ambiguity is not inferred by the aging physician friend of the family (a character Lefty and Desdemona saved and brought to American with them), and she grows up as any young girl. Unfortunately, the onset of puberty and the various hormonal changes it is supposed to entail in a young woman, brings out the problems which had been undetected till then. These scenes of Calliope’s hesitation and confused frustration at her body and mind is sensitively evoked – it treads successfully the fine line between the comic and the serious without stooping to mockery. Her conflicting feelings of attraction and love for a fellow classmate, amusingly only referred to as ‘The Obscure Object’ only heightens her sense of not understanding her own body.

The final portions of the book do tend to seem a tad too dramatic and extreme before things finally wind up, but then again Cal’s situation is in itself an extreme scenario – a life affirming change which most people would not even be able to comprehend, let alone experience.

I approached the book expecting it to be mostly about Cal’s life and times, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is an inter-generational saga of an immigrant family and their Grecian roots. The pathos and despair of leaving a cherished homeland because of unfortunate circumstances, the hope and anticipation of a new dawn, the drudgery of settling into and building a new life; all this is captured in remarkably fluid prose.

The city and time that Lefty and Desdemona end up in, leaves great scope for a historical tour, and is made use of well. There is a section devoted to the initial days of the Nation of Islam which remarkably captures the impact of the organization on the underprivileged and frustrated neighbors around it. Another part of the book rather vividly portrays the infamous Detroit race riots and its repercussions. It could all have appeared to be historical grandstanding, but the author infuses it well into the life of successive generations of the Stephanides family. The style is reminiscent of one of my favorite authors, John Irving, and his tragicomedies but Eugenides leaves his own mark.  

After an acclaimed debut, The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides took a decade to come out with this book, and it satisfied all the lofty expectations it had set. Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2003, it is a story which is timeless in its theme and structure.

(L) – Middlesex; (R) – Jeffrey Eugenides.

Praveen Palakkazhi works in the Tech industry, though his primary interests lie in literature, world cinema and a bit of health and fitness. He lives with his wife Ashwathy in Bengaluru.


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The quintessential South American novel


 

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