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Middlesex Book Review

Updated on March 18, 2011

There are certain books, like special experiences, that just stay with you long after you've experienced them; like seeing the ghost of a dog, or hearing the echo of a song that simply won't fade away from your mind.  Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is one of those books.  The pulitzer-prize winning novel, by the author of The Virgin Suicides, is a Bildungsroman.  That is, it follows the protagonist, Callie (also called Calliope or simply Cal) from the life of a youngster to that of an adult.  It is putatively set in the Detroit suburb of Middlesex, seemingly an average suburb in an average city. Yet reader, don't be fooled: the name of the book holds secrets of biology that so few have read about, though we all know exist: the fascinating middle, or third sex: "inter-sexuals," hermaphrodites.

Middlesex notably grabs you immediately with a trance-inducing narration that begins in Greece, in post-Byzantine Asia Minor (which would later be called The Republic of Turkey) -and even briefly harkens back to Ancient China with its mulberry-supported silk trade.   Beginning in Smyrna, Asia Minor (Izmir in modern Turkey), Calliope's grandmother, Desdemona, is presented with her own joys & delights, terrors & troubles, part of which is her brother Lefty.  Lefty loves the ladies, the drink, and the smoke of the times.  Her other major trouble is history: that of the centuries of turbulence between the Greeks and the Turks, and the need to escape from such difficulties, a function of the Greek Diaspora and Population Exchange.  Yet readers who dislike history need not also flee, for the mood becomes lighter as we escape Turkey.

From Desdemona and Lefty's flight from Smyrna, we see them travel to the United States, where they soon settle in Detroit.  Callie's grandmother has children, who also grow up, finalizing in her own existence.  This translates to a continual modernizing towards the present, as one generation is peeled away towards a newer generation, and finally, to the third generation  -that of characters like Callie, her brother, the oddly-named Chapter 11, and Callie's long-time desire, a girl she calls The Object.

Further, there are a number of literary devices employed, as when the narrator directly addresses the reader such as "Dear Readers," or as with the explosion of manifold stories (not unlike Tolstoy's War and Peace, in that sense), all happening at the same time, or seemingly-so.  The characters include the likes of "Mr. Go," who appears to draw us further, deeper into the story from the perspective of another character.  Then we learn nearly at the end that the story is being told to someone who becomes a person of interest to the narrator and main protagonist, Calliope. Throughout the tale Callie is the observer passing on the narrative of her life and the coming successes and mistakes that led to the genetic bog that Callie becomes.

The many parts of the book are much like scenes of a movie, they are so palapable, as where a lovestruck boy plays a clarinet just over the body of the center of his affection.  Also like a movie, there is a splendiferous part towards the end -the big chase scene , a purple patch that ends in the dreamy, scenic, magic of a true piece of fine literature -where a man and his Buick Cadillac grow wings and fly like the concord over the Detroit River.  This part proves to be as brilliant as any writing put out by writers the likes of John Irving or Mark Helprin

In other places the narrator makes you guess at what happens and why, while simultaneously showing his/her character -colorful, personable, and funny. Description and analogy are a simple child's game for Jeffrey Eugenides.  He describes what he wishes, making such descript seem easy -Detroit in the early part of the 1900's, for instance, and the city as it traveled through the 20th Century, experiencing Capitalist growth, race riots, and Capitalist decline.  The narrator does this by utilizing a glorious omniscence, drifting in and out of the years, minds of characters, and the great expanses twixt America's West Coast, Western Asia Minor, and the odd yet necessary places in-between.

Middlesex is an extremely well-considered and finely constructed story in which each sentence is woven with care, thought about, examined, tasted and smelled, and then re-examined.  Mere polish alone is not here.  The vestiges of such honing are not even to be found; the perfected work is a matter of ipso facto, evident by the near-brilliance of this fine, fine story that strays above mere story-telling, proving itself to be true literature.

And like many sturdy, modern novels, Middlesex presents tales of the past with those of the present often enough that it has the effect of bulking up the novel like a bread does for a sandwich, though it also fills the mind, leaving it sated for now, yet quickly hungry for more of the story.

Of course, every novel has its loose strands, which are mere random bits that add to the color and flavor of the tale.  In Middlesex, for instance, we learn why San Francisco became the gay capital of America (for a hint, consider the sailor in The Village People) and that "Sex is biological.  Gender is cultural." I would quote the page, only I actually listened to this as a book on tape.  I was fortunate to do so and recommend it as the tape/CD audio versions of Middlesex include lovely, memorable music at the beginning and end of each tape or CD.  The music is a lovely compilation of Turkish Music, Greek Music, Polka, Modern Rock, you name it -all reflecting the period of time and place that the story is covering.

Also of interest for those who enjoy Middlesex is that HBO is making a series based on the book.


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