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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

book cover of Middlesex

On one level, this was a really interesting book. Over the week and a half that I was reading it, I spent so much time doing outside reading on the many topics it raised – the Great Fire of Smyrna (and how Greeks were pushed out of modern-day Turkey in general), the rise and fall of Detroit, race riots, “white flight”, and intersex conditions (like 5-alpha reductase deficiency, which Cal, the narrator, has). Although the book was better read in small doses, it was extremely absorbing and even once I’d walked away the themes would keep playing on my mind.

On another level, though, I’m not really satisfied with how the story was told. For a start, first-person omniscient is a weird perspective choice. Cal had an engaging voice, but there were so many times that it just got distracting that he knew so much about, say, what his grandparents thought about when they had sex. As well, the book felt somewhat disconnected. One of the other reviews described this book as being like two books glommed together – like Eugenides had written a compelling 150-page novella about Cal but then his publisher asked him to bolt a 400-page story about the Greek-American immigrant experience onto the start. This might not be what actually happened, but from reading it, you’d be forgiven for thinking it is. Both stories are interesting in their own right, but they don’t really gel.

The other issue was that I felt like the story about Cal being intersex came out half-baked. The biological side was covered, and I really enjoyed the story of the younger Callie (as she was at the time) discovering the depth of her attraction to other girls and her friendship with the Obscure Object. The thing was that Cal’s entire story up to and including this point seemed to be the story of a gay girl – he even states at one point that he never felt out of place as a girl, and even 25 years later still didn’t feel entirely at home among men – and the decision to transition just seemed so rushed. I naturally understand why he wouldn’t want “feminising” surgery, particularly given it carried the risk of him never experiencing sexual pleasure again, but his sense that he had to socially transition seemed to stem more from not wanting to be gay. Like, Cal had felt that it was wrong to be attracted to other girls, but if he’d secretly been a dude the whole time then phew! Actually it was OK to be attracted to girls all along – and in fact it proved his masculinity!

To be clear, I don’t think Eugenides was trying to say that a defining feature of manhood or womanhood is attraction to the opposite sex. Really, I got the impression that he thinks gender itself is artificial, a social convention that we feel obliged to push onto people. Cal comments, towards the end of the book, that the leap from childhood to adulthood was far greater than that from girlhood to boyhood. Indeed, when he decides to transition, the changes that he makes are superficial things: a masculine wardrobe, a haircut, and learning to imitate men’s body language. Cal is still fundamentally the same person he always was. I think it’s also an important point that Cal’s body – an intersex body – might have been atypical, but it wasn’t unhealthy and didn’t need artificial interventions like surgery. In the book, Cal never seems to feel ill-at-ease in his own skin: all his problems stem from other people’s expectations. When he transitions, he does so because he feels his natural self runs closer to what society expects men to be than what it expects from women (including being attracted to women). However, whether as a girl or a man, the only discomfort he really feels is when he can’t meet other’s expectations: that is, he never gets his period or develops breasts as an adolescent, and he can’t offer his lovers penile penetration as an adult, but these only pose problems in relation to others. Really, for him, gender is how society perceives him: he’s the same Cal either way.

Even though it would have made the novel longer than it already is (which is almost 200,000 words – the longest book I’ve read so far this year), I think it could have done with more material (i.e. any material) on Cal growing up and going through young adulthood. The story ends when he’s still only 15, a few months after finding out he’s intersex, and aside from a few brief and woefully underdeveloped flash-forwards to 41-year-old Cal, we never really get to read anything about Cal getting to grips with manhood, the way we saw Callie grapple with what it meant to be a teenage girl. To me, this felt like a gaping hole in the story. Eugenides could even have slimmed down the 400-page “migrant experience” story to make more room for this (it was pretty verbose, after all). I think the book is lesser for not having it.

To try and wrap this all up, Middlesex is a ground-breaking, thought-provoking book, but it’s also a bit of a mess and I feel like it will be (or will have been already) superseded by better books on intersexuality, the history of Detroit, and immigration (not necessarily all in the same book). It’s worth reading, but I now feel like I’m on the look out for better treatments of these same themes.

★★★

photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.