Monday, January 9, 2017

Review: Middlesex

Middlesex Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first half of this picaresque novel is an absolute joy. Eugenides writes with loud, emphatic claims. One of my early favorite ones came in his description of the protagonist’s parents’ courtship, something along the lines of, “The Japanese surrendered in 1945. It took Tessie somewhat longer.”

That humor serves not just the tone of the novel, but the great ambition of its early part. This begins as a family epic, one dependent – scientifically and culturally – on three full generations. We learn how it came to pass that Cal/Calliope’s grandparents married despite being siblings and so how the gene for hermaphrodism got passed on, and we get a sense of the power of culture to shape who we are.

I love the great Greekness of the work here. There’s a broad good nature that runs throughout, and – like many of the Jewish-American novels I love – it draws on a stereotype that it makes fresh and even reinvents. couldn’t get enough of the parts that dealt with the generations leading up to Cal, and I wished the novel would keep going.

Then, somewhere before the two-thirds mark, this becomes increasingly about Calliope discovering her sexuality. What was a broad, expansive novel becomes a quiet and personal one. Where much of what drives the early parts is global – it’s the Turks at Smyrna, the press of World War II, the riots in 1967 Detroit – the parts about Calliope waiting for her period or developing crushes on girls feel quieter. They aren’t badly written; they’re just in a different tone. And for someone who loves the early tone as much as I do, that’s a disappointment.

The edition I read had a brief interview with Eugenides as an appendix, and in it he talks about the challenge of finding a first-person narrator who can also convey a sense of the deep history of the family. As much as I enjoy this overall, I think he fails to find the perfect device for answering that challenge.

It’s not merely a matter of that tone shift. (Though that’s part of it. I resented the light, almost lyrical descriptions of [SPOILER] Milton’s death in the car crash. If we’re getting family epic of the 100 Years of Solitude type, fine. But when we get a narrative that’s set only a decade or so later, it seems offensive to Milton’s memory to discuss it so breezily. Especially since he dies trying to find Cal, since Cal’s running away is very much the proximate cause of his death. I don’t see how the tone works at all.)

It’s also about the way the different stories – the familial and the personal – collide. This book ends with Desdemona confessing her relationship with Lefty. But it doesn’t feel climactic to be told something we learn much earlier in the book. There’s a release that answers the narrative tension of half the story, the personal half, but it doesn’t address the pressure of the larger family epic. We get hints, for instance, of the adult Cal’s relationships, but we end with a darkened room and an understanding woman. I’d like more. Cal’s future is his family’s future. In the epic sense of the novel, that’s where the pressure ought to be released. The two halves of the novel simply don’t fit together as cleanly as they might. Eugenides makes it work, more or less, by sleight of hand, but there’s something missing in the movement,

I’m complaining perhaps more than I should be. I do absolutely love most of this work, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for Eugenides’s other work. Still, I think the end is the weakest part of this, and it’s the part I’m closest to now. Give me some time, and I’m sure I’ll fall back into the wonderful quirky rhythm of the substantial early parts here.

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