A friend recommended that I read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Published in 2002, the book tells a long—and mostly satisfying—story about a protagonist who is intersex; that is, someone born with one or more variations in sex characteristics so that the person does not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies.
What I found confusing about Middlesex is that the novel is really two stories in one, and I felt that each story suffered from having to elaborate on the other.
On the one hand, Middlesex is the story of a family of Greek immigrants. It begins in 1922 when Eleutherios (“Lefty”) and his sister Desdemona flee Smyrna, Greece (now Izmir, Turkey), during the chaos of the Greco-Turkish War, and board a passenger ship bound for the United States. Although they are brother and sister, they decide to get married by the ship’s captain. Having come from a small village where marriages between cousins are commonplace, they justify the relationship, even though they know it’s wrong. That union plants the seed, as it were, for the other story. More about that later. The family saga continues as Lefty and Desdemona make a life for themselves in Detroit, Michigan. The family lives out the American dream of financial success, despite setbacks caused by the decay of Detroit, which Mr. Eugenides poignantly describes.
Then there’s the other story in Middlesex. The grandchild of Lefty and Desdemona begins life as a little girl named Calliope (“Callie”), but as she reaches puberty she discovers that she’s more male than female. After she’s injured by a tractor, the doctor treating her discovers that she is intersex. That fact was not previously discovered because Callie’s family doctor is an aging Greek physician who had helped her grandparents escape to the United States. After the secret of Callie’s condition is out—so to speak—her parents take her to a clinic in New York, where she undergoes numerous tests and examinations by the world’s leading expert on intersex. When Callie learns that she’s going to have sex reassignment surgery, she runs away and assumes a male identity.
Hitchhiking cross-country, she begins calling herself “Cal.” She encounters a number of strange characters and eventually reaches San Francisco, where she (now he) works in a strip club as “Hermaphroditus.” When the club is raided by police, Cal is arrested. Later, he’s released to the custody of his brother, who has come to California to retrieve him. Cal’s brother tells him that their father has died, and the siblings return to their family home on Middlesex for the funeral. When Cal goes to see his grandmother, Desdemona at first thinks he’s Lefty, but recalling stories from her old village about children born of incest, she soon realizes that Callie is now Cal. Desdemona reveals to Cal that her husband, Lefty, was also her brother, and the story obtains closure. The consequence of Desdemona’s sin is now laid bare.
Obviously, based on the awards and acclaim it has received, Middlesex is deemed to be a great work of literature. But, as I read it, I kept thinking about Curly (Jack Palance) in the movie City Slickers, who told Mitch (Billy Crystal) that the secret to life is “one thing.” Middlesex is a wonderful book, but it is most assuredly not one thing. It is a family saga, a coming-of-age story, a social commentary on decaying cities, and. . . a detailed discussion of the challenges of living as an intersex. It’s a good book, but I think Mr. Eugenides tried to accomplish too much in one book. Still, it’s worth a read. Hey, it won the Pulitzer Prize.