Two in one: A review of Middlesex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

To read an author of Greek descent or a story that relates to my Greek heritage is most welcome. From 1990 when I left Greece in pursue of my personal goals, my language, my religion, and my sense of identity have remained strong. Anything Greek from reading a book like Middlesex to attending mass or cooking a meal helps me revive the culture I brought with me across the Atlantic to America. Jeffrey Eugenides’s surname caught my eye in a long list of new books and prompted me to read Middlesex, the extraordinary odyssey of a Greek-American immigrant family.

The  first time I read the book title, I thought it as a city name and Middlesex in London came to mind. My second hunch related to something between female and male gender. After reading the book, I realized that I wasn’t far off the facts. It is January 1975 when the telephone rings and Milton Stephanides answers it only to be confronted by his “daughter’s” phony kidnapper. Calliope Stephanides, now Cal, disappeared four months ago when she discovered her true gender identity in Dr. Peter Luce’s study of her: She was born first as a girl in January 1960 and then as a boy in August 1974. This shocking revelation lies in a rare genetic mutation on her fifth chromosome that followed Calliope’s grandparents from Asia Minor to America, spanned through eight decades, and bloomed in the body of a young girl.

Calliope Stephanides takes the reader on the rollercoaster ride of her inbred family and the succession of a single gene through time that changed her life for ever. To her horror, she discovers that she is a hermaphrodite and pictures herself as a “lumbering, shaggy creature,” a monster by definition. She compares herself to Teresias, one of the most notable soothsayers of ancient Greece, who stumbled on two copulating snakes and threw his stick at them. Instantly, he was turned into a woman. The Greek philosopher Plato also described the original condition of human beings as hermaphroditic. In the first few weeks after conception, we are all both male and female. As the fetus develops in the womb, hormones and enzymes are released and they can form either boy parts or girl parts. But they both grow from the same root.

The notion of a person who possesses characteristics of both genders has a distinguished and long-standing place in literary history from classicism to hellenism. In ancient Greek mythology, Aphrodite was the most erotic of the goddesses. She dazzled gods and mortals with her beauty and inspired love and passion in all the creatures of the earth. Her connection with fertility is manifest in her union with Dionysus, which led to the birth of Priapus, a misshapen child with monstrous genitalia. The myth of Hermaphroditus, who was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, can be explained in a similar manner: One day as Hermaphroditus was bathing, the nymph Salmacis saw him and fell in love with him. Hermaphroditus returned her feelings, and the two young people locked together in an embrace so tight that they became one, generating a creature with characteristics of both genders.

Hermaphroditism springs from the curiosity that each sex has about the other. Women wonder what it would be like to be a man. Men wonder what it would be like to be a woman. In prehistoric times, “the sexes were separated, men into hunters and women into gatherers.” Genetics and evolution explain where we are today: Men cannot communicate “because they had to be quiet on the hunt;” Women are better communicators “because they had to call out to one another” where the food source was; Men can never find things around the house “because they have a narrow field of vision, useful in tracking prey;” Women can find things easily because they had to scan a broad field around the nest to protect it; Women cannot parallel-park “because low testosterone inhibits spatial ability;” Men will not ask for directions because that “is a sign of weakness, and hunters never show weakness.”

Calliope Stephanides is not a mythical creature like Teresias or Hermaphroditus but rather a real live person. She knows what it is like to be different and she will tell you: She fell in love with her red-haired classmate, whose brother also liked Calliope; She became the ridicule of her friends and the guinea pig of her doctors; She was exposed to specialists and “researched by the March of Dimes;” She was turned into a god in a swimming pool and an exhibitionist in Octopussy’s Garden.

The author’s ethic identity as well as his personal life cannot be overlooked because they are related to the story he tells. Both the narrator and the author lived first in Detroit, Michigan, then in Berlin, Germany. Eugenides came to Berlin after and invitation of the DAAD, a German arts organization that offered him a grant. He and his wife found Berlin a great place to work, and write Middlesex. After Calliope started living as a male (Cal), she knew that she could never have children. That’s one of the reasons why she joined the Foreign Service and was stationed in Berlin temporarily. She did not want to stay in one place.

Both the author’s and the narrator’s grandparents were Greeks who emigrated from Asia Minor to America. Therefore, Eugenides had to educate himself about the conditions of life in Asia Minor (Anatolia), the Greco-Turkish war, and the burning of Smyrna (Izmir) in 1922, among other subjects. The term Anatolia comes from the Greek word “anatoli” which means “east.” The region was named Anatolia because only the east lands remained to be discovered. The Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, conquered most of the then know world and sought to hellenize it.  In 146 B.C. Greece fell to the Romans and in 330 A.D. Emperor Constantine moved the Roman capital to Constantinople. There he founded the Eastern Roman Empire and he named it Byzantine Empire or Byzantium. Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453 and the Greeks remained under the Ottoman yoke for nearly 400 years. The Greeks in the Ottoman Empire had important positions in the government and the intellectual life. But the First World War was an excellent medium for political leaders to get rid of the non-muslim people in Anatolia. A genocide and transportation started against the Armenians and the Greeks. After the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the war, the Greek army invaded Smyrna and at the same time, the Turks were killing men, women, and children. The destruction lasted until 9 October 1922 when the Greek army fled away from Smyrna. After the war, all the Greeks were moved to Greece upon effect of the exchange agreement of the Lausanne Treaty.

The structure of Middlesex is a hybrid just like its hermaphroditic narrator. Nearly every chapter of the book takes on new historical and emotional terrain. Once the author was through with the Greco-Turkish war, he had to recall Detroit during Prohibition, and later plunge into genetics, sexology, and pediatric endocrinology. He was even preoccupied with birth and fetal development in the book, what women undergo during pregnancy, and how men feel in the process. From Eve, whose womb was cursed, to their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, all women share a physical knowledge of their pains, their fears, their outrage, their expectations. Lina Zizmo and Desdemona Stephanides, Calliope’s aunt and grandmother respectively, were both pregnant at the same time, but their delicate conditions did not excuse them from their domestic duties: On swollen legs, they served meals and did their housekeeping. Their face grew plump and their breasts inflated. Their expression “exhausted, resigned, impatient.” Desdemona was tormented by anxieties: Birth deformities that result from families intermarrying such as imbecility and hemophilia. She recalled her mother’s stories of babies born in her village with some kind of disease; babies who had tragic ends: “they killed themselves, they ran off and became circus performers,” beggars or prostitutes. She swore that she will never have another baby.

Desdemona was not the only one tormented. Lina’s husband, Jimmy, was not excited about being a father. He did not bring home nutritive roots and brew homeopathic teas. He ignored his wife’s complains of aches and pains. Maybe the synchronous pregnancies were responsible for Jimmy’s “increasing moodiness, his suspicious glances at his pregnant wife. Maybe he was doubting the likelihood that a single act of intercourse in a five-month dry spell would result in a successful pregnancy.” Maybe he was examining his wife and feeling old or tricked. After the birth of his son, Lefty Stephanides felt enclosed in the isolation of fatherhood, and he tried not to start anything amorous with Desdemona who was exhausted from luck of sleep and was healing from the delivery. He was also madly jealous toward his infant son who had Desdemona’s affections, caresses, and tenderness. Lefty felt out and he retaliated with tradition: He stopped calling his wife sweet names and he segregated her in the kitchen.

Desdemona bore another baby and agonized that “the hand of judgment would now fall heavy on her head” because she had promised to the Virgin Mary that she will never have another child. She kept waiting for something terrible to happen: a disease, an abnormality, a punishment for her crime on the bodies of her children. She had nightmares and avoided all lovemaking, until one day she made sure that it would not happen again: She had an operation.

Eugenides’s Greek heritage and academic concerns on phylogeny supported his story of a family saga narrated by Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite living in Berlin at the beginning of the 21st century. Cal traces his heredity several generations back, through different geographic and political landscapes. The complex plot of Middlesex stretches from Greece to America, from misadventure to misadventure. It begins as epic narration and then becomes more realistic and psychological. Cal’s voice is versatile, capable of narrating epic events in the third person as well as intimate revelations in the first person. He tells his life experiences both as a girl and as a man. Whatever you might be expecting, Middlesex will surprise you as a kind of novelistic genome.

Happy reading!




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