Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, and the Modern American Myth
Jeffrey Eugenides may just be one of the most successful and acclaimed American writers of this century, and so far he has only written two books. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, published in 1993, was a bestseller and brought him great acclaim. His second work, Middlesex (2002), won him the Pulitzer Prize. Both stories are set in Grosse Point, Michigan, and deal with the trials and secrets that families must face. The Virgin Suicides is told from the point of view of several teenage boys, and the five sisters they spy on remain shrouded in mystery as the girls one-by-one kill themselves. Middlesex takes the scope of the narrative even further, chronicling the lives of three generations of the Stephanides family, as recounted by the hermaphrodite Calliope Stephanides (later “Cal”). Eugenides’ use of point of view in these two novels—from the Chorus-like group of boys in Virgin Suicides to the modern-day Tiresias of Middlesex—establishes him as a contemporary myth-maker. Middlesex allowed Eugenides to tell a grand and expansive story, both an American epic and a Greek tale of metamorphosis and fate.
A Greek-American family saga
Like the dual-natured (and dual-gendered) protagonist, Middlesex functions on two levels: as a story of Greek immigrants settling in America and as Callie’s personal coming-of-age story with a major twist—at age fourteen she discovers that she is genetically a male. From the opening line—“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”—the novel sets up a melding of myth and science.
The Stephanides family history starts with Lefty and Desdemona, Callie’s grandparents, who are also brother and sister living in Asia Minor. The two fall in love, and after fleeing the Turkish massacre and burning of Smyrna, get married and move to America, where their secret will be safe. Lefty and Desdemona move in with their cousin Sourmelina and her husband; both couples become pregnant on the same night. Their children, second-cousins Milton Stephanides and Tessie Zizmo, grow up together and naturally fall in love. Thus, the second phase of the story begins as Milton and Tessie get married and raise a family—son “Chapter Eleven” and daughter Calliope.
I can tell that Eugenides, an American of Greek descent, has probably absorbed all the stories of his family since childhood, because the realism and heart of his characters shine.Eugenides gives life to each of his characters, portraying all of their virtues and flaws with compassion and humor. The issue of incest is not sensationalized; rather, Eugenides portrays the orphaned siblings who have only each other gradually acting against their better judgment as they acknowledge their deeper desires. When Desdemona learns about the risks of consanguinity, she fears for the health of her unborn child.
Passing on the family genes
As Eugenides tracks the story of the Stephanideses, he also follows the special gene that causes Callie’s hermaphroditism. The story traces the gene from the bodies of Calie's grandparents, way back in 1922, to America in her parents, and finally to her at her birth. In an effort to make the protagonist as real as possible, Eugenides researched hermaphroditic (or intersex) conditions at a medical library. He found a condition called five-alpha reductase deficiency syndrome, which he used for Callie. Eugenides explained that the gene usually appears in communities with a lot of inbreeding. "That’s at the moment when I started thinking about the story as a family story. I thought it was a new way to tell a family story through a gene and watching the gene on its rollercoaster rider through time," he said (Online News Hour).
Thus, Callie is born with both male and female sex organs, although her condition is not discovered by doctors until she is fourteen. Eugenides mixes the scientific with the mythological, as narrator Cal exclaims: “Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!” He then apologizes: “Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too." Callie has an ordinary childhood as a girl but goes through some unusual changes with puberty. She worries about her not menstruating, her deepening voice and embarrassing facial hair, and her attraction to her best friend. Eugenides explained his intent for his portrayal of Callie: “I used a hermaphrodite not to tell the story of a freak or someone unlike the rest of us but as a correlative for the sexual confusion and confusion of identity that everyone goes through in adolescence” (Powell’s Books). While in that sense Callie’s story is psychological and postmodern, Eugenides also playfully ties Callie back to her ancient Greek roots. For a school performance of Antigone, who better to play Tiresias, the blind hermaphrodite, than Callie? The gods changed Tiresias from a man to a woman and back again.
The Detroit novel
As a Greek-American, Eugenides in many ways follows the common advice to “write what you know.” In crafting Middlesex, he drew inspiration from his own family’s coming to America. He was born in Detroit and attended Brown and StanfordUniversities. He has also lived in Berlin, Germany (also where the adult Cal lives). Eugenides does not object to critics calling Middlesex “the Detroit novel” and points out that not many novels are set there.
He connects Detroit with many cultural and historical aspects of America—including the invention of the automobile, Motown, and racial tensions. Eugenides weaves these various elements into the Stephanides saga, taking the family through Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, the race riots of 1967, Watergate, and beyond. As the times change, so does the Greek immigrant Stephanides family as it adjusts to American life. Lefty works at the Ford Motor Company, then as a rum-runner during Prohibition, and then opens his own bar. His son Milton expands the family business, opening up a chain called Hercules Hot Dogs. “‘McDonald’s has Golden Arches?’ [Milton] said. ‘We’ve got the Pillars of Hercules.'"
The family lives the American Dream, moving into the suburbs of Grosse Pointe, buying the latest model cars, and enrolling Callie into a WASP-y all-girls school. As the family experiences successes and setbacks, the Stephanideses seem like a true American family—not perfect, but believably human.
Tristram Shandy connections
The narrator Cal plays a large part in the story’s success. A blurb from The New York Times calls him “Part Tristram Shandy, part Ishmael, part Holden Caulfield.” The comparisons to Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman are significant, especially with regard to the narrator and the humor. For one thing, both narrators tell their families’ stories long before they are born. Tristram Shandy does not enter his own wildly discursive story until Vol. III. Both Tristram and Cal delve into the extraordinary (and amusing) circumstances of their conceptions. Tristram begins his story with the night he was begot:
Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? ----Good G—! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,----Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?
Thus, Tristram’s troubles start nine months before he is born, when his mother interrupted the conception with a silly question. In Cal’s case, his parents Milton and Tessie are hoping to conceive a girl. Milton believes that by having sex twenty-four hours before ovulation, the “male sperm” will tire out and the “female sperm” will prevail. “‘This has all been verified. Under the microscope. The male sperms are faster,’” Milton explains to his skeptical wife. “‘I bet they’re stupider, too,’” she replies. When Tessie’s basal thermometer tells her it is time, she and Milton drop everything and hasten to the bedroom. Cal prudishly describes his parents’ act: “A child’s natural decorum makes me refrain from imagining the scene in much detail. Only this: when they’re done, as if topping off the tank, my father says, ‘That should do it.’” The sly humor that Sterne and Eugenides employ in such instances serves to balance the more serious content.
Tristram Shandy remarks that from the moment he was “brought forth into this scurvy and disastrous world of ours” he has been “the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune.” As a modern Greek myth, Middlesex also raises the question of how much of life is preordained and how much is free will. Is Callie’s fate determined by that one gene that traveled all the way from Asia Minor with her grandparents? Or do other factors figure into the Stephanideses’ lives? In ancient myth it was the gods who meddled with human affairs; in Middlesex it is genetics. Eugenides also makes the story mythic with its theme of metamorphosis—Callie transforming into Cal. The novel itself transforms—“it begins with epic events, old fashioned, almost Homeric ideas—and as it progresses it should gradually become a more deeply psychological, more modern novel” (Powell’s Books).
The appeal of the modern myth
Dualities abound in Middlesex: male and female, myth and modern, Greek and American. Even the title has a double meaning, both the name of the street in Grosse Pointe and that intersexual state that Callie inhabits. Dave Weich commented that he found reviews for Middlesex in both Elle and Men’s Journal, which is unusual: “You don’t generally find women’s magazines and men’s magazines reviewing the same book.” Eugenides replied, “With a hermaphrodite book…,” and Weich said, “I know. It’s the ultimate crossover book, in every way” (Powell’s Books). Its appeal to both men and women indicates that Middlesex succeeds in bridging the gap between the genders.
Jeffrey Eugenides has had great success with his two novels. Middlesex both won the Pulitzer Prize and made it on the 2007 Oprah’s Book Club List, proving that it possesses both literary merit and popular appeal. Part of the appeal of Eugenides’ work is the mythic quality that resonates with readers even today. The themes the novel explores are timeless—family, identity, metamorphosis. Like the protagonist, Middlesex undergoes a transformation, morphing from a modern Greek myth into a psychological coming-of-age tale. With the ambitious scope of the narrative, blending both myth and American epic, Jeffrey Eugenides earned his place among the great American writers, someone to watch over the coming years.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Interview. Online NewsHour. June 2003. 22 Sept. 2008 <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/jan-june03/eugenides_06-17.html>.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Interview. Powell’s Books. Oct. 2002. 22 Sept. 2008 <http://www.powells.com/authors/eugenides.html>.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002.
Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Ed. Melvyn New and Joan New. London: Penguin Books, 1997.