by Jeffrey Eugenides
Posted: May 2, 2003
As the title suggests, Middlesex is a novel about sexual ambiguity—the state of being between male and female. It is also a humorous and affectionate meditation on gender and identity in 20th-century American life.
The 41-year-old Cal, now living in Berlin, narrates the story of his Greek-American family. We come to know his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and teenage crushes, as we know our own. And we recognize many of the baffling forces at work that shape us into the adults we become.
Callie grows up on Middlesex Boulevard in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Until the onset of puperty, she is a charming and untroubled girl. As a teenager though, her body refuses to develop along the usual lines and a pesky line of hair appears on her upper lip. What’s more, she finds herself inexplicably attracted to another girl in her class. It gradually dawns on her that she is not like other girls.
In fact, she is not really a girl at all. Callie, it turns out, has a mutated fifth chromosome that is responsible for her ambiguous genitalia. This is a rare condition, found among inbred families, called “male pseudohermaphrodite—genetically male but appearing otherwise, with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome.”
Despite this traumatic revelation, the tone of the novel remains light. “Some people inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows. Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed,” Cal tells us.
Weighing in at over 500 pages, the book spans eight decades and traces the history of a gene handed down through three generations—from a tiny Greek village in Asia Minor, through 20th-century Detroit, and on to contemporary Berlin.
We learn early on that Cal’s genetic trouble arises in part because his grandparents each carry a single mutated gene on the fifth chromosome. The Greek immigrants are not only husband and wife, but also brother and sister—a secret the rest of the family learns only decades later. The family tree grows even more convoluted because their only son—Cal’s father—marries his second cousin.
The past eventually catches up with them. Callie is born with undescended testes that go unnoticed until she is fourteen. When an accident lands her in the emergency room, a doctor discovers what would have been noticed years before, if her mother hadn’t been a prude and the aging family physician hadn’t been half-blind.
Callie’s parents eventually send their daughter to a specialist who diagnoses her as a “genetic XY raised as a female.” The doctor wants to drag Callie under the knife and “implement feminizing surgery.” Callie rejects this advice and decides to become Cal.
To avoid surgery and hormone treatments, she runs away, cuts her long hair short, and changes her clothes into men’s clothes. He then hitchhikes to San Francisco, determined to explore and come to terms with his new identity.
Every now and then, Calliope surfaces in Cal like a childhood speech impediment. “Suddenly there she is again, doing a hair flip, or checking her nails. It’s a little like being possessed. Callie rises up inside me, wearing my skin like a loose robe. She sticks her little hands into the baggy sleeves of my arms.”
It took Eugenides nine years to write Middlesex, and most readers will agree that it was worth the wait. The novel has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, one of America's most prestigious literary awards. As with The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides’ first novel and the story of five sisters who all commit suicide, Middlesex explores fascinating and unusual characters.
For instance, while in Berlin, Cal reflects: “I never felt out of place being a girl. I still don’t feel entirely at home among men. Desire made me cross over to the other side, desire and the facticity of my body.”
Only at the tail end of the book do some of Cal’s adventures feel strangely out of place. His brief dip into the underworld of porn and a climactic car chase lack the book’s overall warmth and humor.
Yet these seem like minor lapses in a story that asks why we are the way we are. Human fate, the author concludes, isn’t simply a function of genetic code, and in the end neither science nor society could define Cal’s gender.
Eugenides lives with his family in Berlin. He is scheduled to read from Middlesex at the American Academy in Berlin on May 13, 2003. Birgit Reinert, the former associate editor of GNN, is now a freelance writer also living in Berlin.