Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Pulitzer Committee has done it again: awarded a great-not-Great novel the award, recognizing ambition at the expense of anything substantial, even though the jury extensively tries to “favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature.” But as Schopenhauer recognized, “There are two types of writers, those who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.” It seems that in Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides succumbs to the latter. Middlesex is ambitious, yes, and beautifully written. It’s a humorous book and a great pleasure to read. What it is not though is, unfortunately, authentically important.
Middlesex is about the in-between. The in-between of sexes, as our protagonist so often reminds us. The in-between of location, from Greece as the meeting point between the West and the East, to Middlesex, where three different generations of a family live, to Berlin, a city divided. Middlesex is about the division of identity, about duality. Or, at least, it attempts to be. This quest of explaining the in-between is less about the struggles of those without a clear identity and more of how these same people fit into any one camp. Our protagonist, Calliope, barely struggles with these issues, and when Cal does, the issues manifest as a physical problem more so than a mental one. Much of the story when it should have been pushed along by Cal’s discoveries about her — and later himself — is pushed forward by the brute force of the author (two-and-a-half pages of faux-medical diagnosis). Middlesex fails to become a bildungsroman, because Cal doesn’t grow up; he merely changes.
One can presume that the detailed nature of Cal’s condition was hidden from us either because it doesn’t matter (it is none of our business), or because it speaks to Cal’s own uncertainty about who he is — but the titular condition is alluded to from the very beginning! One of the emerging movements in this decade is about transgender rights and how they fit into our thankfully acceleratingly less gendered society. While Calliope’s case isn’t exactly that of someone transgender, uncomfortable issues are plentiful, and devising an incest origin story is unnecessary. My favorite parts of the novel occurred in San Francisco, where Cal truly grew. His conversations and interactions during this time are what shaped him, not a doctor’s report. Alas, this time frame was among the shortest sections of the novel (the final quintile), and ended in a implausible phone call. This lack of focus led to the novel being untied at its end. We had hitchhiked on an adventure, but the different landscapes we encountered remained unconnected.
Had Eugenides provided a more genuine story for Cal, and truly explored who he is, the novel would have been a fresh success. Instead, Middlesex seems to be a chimera of two identity stories, but one without the ‘umph’ to merge them powerfully.