The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews
Middlesex
by Jeffrey
Eugenides.
Middlesex
by Jeffrey Eugenides

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Long before the transformation of biological identity emerged
as a specialty of medical practitioners, it served as a focal point
for myths and legends. It is fitting that the key characters in
Jeffrey Eugendies' Middlesex are of Greek origin, because so
are many of the most memorable traditions of body mashups—
whether the Minotaur, the Chimera, the Harpy, or Centaur.
Each of these figures, if allowed to tell its own tale, might
well share a story of identity crisis that
possesses a peculiarly modern flavor.

In the case of Middlesex, the betwixt and
between character is Cal Stephanides,
whose inheritance includes a mutated
gene that results in both male and female
characteristics.  Over the course of this
novel, Cal becomes Calliope—a nice touch,
since
this is also the name of the muse
responsible for epic works, and Eugenides
has delivered one in these pages.  
Around
Calliope's remarkable story, he weaves
dozens of characters and sub-plots, as
well as large doses of history, building
the whole
into a dazzling, seamless narrative.

As Eugenides demonstrated in his debut novel
The Virgin Suicides,
he is capable of bringing a light touch to even the heaviest subjects.
The story of
Middlesex, when presented in stark outline, is a tragic
one. In addition to Calliope’s gender confusion, the reader confronts
ethnic cleansing, underworld crime, race riots, poverty, fatal
accidents and various miscarriages of the medical profession. Yet
this summary presents a misleading sense of the ambiance of the
book, which moves ahead with a lilting, often humorous tone
strikingly at odds with the tale presented.

Eugenides begins his novel in Anatolia where Calliope’s
grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, fall in love in the midst of
Greco-Turkish violence that forces them to abandon their native
land. During their voyage by ship to the United States, the couple
get married, and try to forget the inconvenient fact that they are, in
fact, brother and sister. The Stephanides settle in Detroit, where
their son, Milton, marries a second cousin, setting the genetic stage
for Calliope’s arrival. Here is her dilemma in a nutshell: the
chromosomes say male — Calliope has both an X and a Y—but the
physical apparatus looks (more or less) female.

This sharp contrast between the tone and topic of Middlesex has
disturbed some readers. Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in
The New
York Review of Books
, wanted more pathos from Eugenides, and
attacked
Middlesex for its “pervasive sense of superficiality.” Other
critics took the opposite tack, praising the novel’s comic aspects,
and hailing it as a modern-day
Tristam Shandy. That a single book
can inspire such radically different interpretations testifies to the
complexity and multilayered textures of Eugenides’ epic novel.

But readers who come to
Middlesex because of the peculiarities of
the story, will remember it for the quality of its writing. Eugenides is
a brilliant stylist, full of clever asides, striking metaphors, and
memorable turns of phrase. The prose starts strong, but gets even
better as the novel progresses. About three hundred
pages into the book, Eugenides launches into a trope on the
hairiness of Southern European women -- “Sing Muse of Greek
ladies and their battle against unsightly hair! Sing of depilatory
creams and tweezers! Of bleach and beeswax,” etc., etc.—that is as
funny and inspired as anything I have read in a long time. And
though he soon moves on to other topics, his writing stays at a
remarkably high level for the next thirty or so pages. When he is at
the top of his game like this, Eugenides demands respect as one of
the finest writers of his generation.

Oprah's attention pushed
Middlesex up to the sixth position on
Amazon’s best seller list. God bless Oprah for continuing to promote
quality fiction at a time when newspapers are slashing their book
review pages and publishers are retrenching. The smart money says
that, after a taste of Eugenides’ great writing, more than a few
readers will turn off the television and start checking out the action
on the library shelves.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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Middlesex

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More to come


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