Middlesex, the long-awaited and Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, unfolds like a Greek drama, with a sense of inevitability and of underlying purpose in what might be seen as random and coincidental occurrences. Characters suffer from flaws that the reader knows will somehow be their undoing but act according to their seemingly free will, even when taking actions that they suspect will prove ruinous. The moral lessons, barring an admonition against incest, are not as obvious as in Greek drama, but the reader leaves the book feeling that the gods do in fact have plans for mortal beings.
Cal Stephanides, a pseudohermaphrodite (he has external female genitalia but male XY chromosomes, rather than female XX), narrates the novel. The opening sentence hints at inevitability: Cal states that he was born twice, as a baby girl in Detroit in 1960, then as a teenage boy in an emergency room in Petoskey, Michigan, in 1974. Readers thus know that Cal will discover his identity, but through many chapters, Calliope (his young female self) remains confused by her feelings and by her body. Cal believes that he breaks from predestination by deciding to live as a man, but one could argue that because he is genetically male (with XY chromosomes), albeit with female genitalia, the choice to be a man is not his.
Cal’s grandparents are more firmly attached to the idea of life as inevitable tragedy. Shortly before fleeing their tiny Greek village during the Turkish invasion of 1922, they realize that although they are brother and sister, they love each other as man and woman. Thus is rooted another theme of the book, that of transformation—Cal’s from female to male identification and his grandparents’ reinvention of themselves as husband and wife rather than brother and sister. The latter choice sets Cal’s story in motion, for it is through his grandparents’ mating that a rare recessive gene is passed to Cal’s father.
That is getting ahead of the story, but the narrator does the same. Early chapters begin with snippets of the narrator’s current life. He relates that he dates women and is good at chatting up and front-door kisses, even groping and the first stages of undressing, but when a relationship gets to that point, he abandons it. He is compelled to engage in the chase, but he has no real interest in bagging the quarry. These glimpses let readers know early on how Cal has turned out, at least in outline, but how he gets there nevertheless makes for fascinating reading.
The book contains two main stories, one acting as prelude to the other, and a third that is neglected. The prelude, about one third of the book, tells how Cal’s grandparents came to the United States, set themselves up as a family, and had a child, Cal’s father. The second is Callie’s tale of growing up as a girl, increasingly confused about her identity, and her discovery of her dual self. It climaxes with her decision to defy her upbringing and live as a man, then shows the process of breaking away from the past and discovering how to be a different person. The tentative and painful first steps of that process are related poignantly.
The neglected story is what happened to the teenage Cal and how he became the forty-one-year-old narrator: Eugenides reveals only the barest outline of more than two decades of Cal’s life. At the age of forty-one, Cal meets a young woman, then abruptly shuts her out of his life when the relationship becomes too serious. He meets her again by chance—but in this novel, what is chance and what is predestination is open to question—and decides for the first time to tell the truth about himself to someone other than a family member. This end fits, for it shows Cal’s willingness to move to a new stage in his life.
Cal begins by telling readers about his dual birth, relates a bit about his present circumstances, and then goes back to the roots of his story in the lives of his grandparents. His grandmother, Desdemona, knows that something bad would come from marrying her brother and tries to avoid becoming pregnant. Greek myth enters here. Desdemona and her cousin Sourmelina, with whom Desdemona and Lefty live, become pregnant on the same night after watching an Americanized performance of a Greek tragedy. The double impregnation is doubly ominous, as Sourmelina, a lesbian, had not had sexual intercourse with her husband, Jimmy Zizmo, for five months, putting him off with various excuses.
The primary reason for Cal to tell so much about his grandparents as part of his own story is to reveal how the rare recessive gene for Cal’s...
(The entire section is 1881 words.)