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19 march 2009

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides arrived in 2002 to great acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize. I didn't read it then, but it was one of those titles that friends kept mentioning, and that exerted a kind of force field across American literary studies. One might say at this point that Middlesex is incipiently "canonical," insofar as any American book reaches a tenuous and temporary canonicity these days. And when the gravitational pull of such a book reaches a certain magnitude, I sooner or later start reading it.

I not only started but finished Middlesex, after four days of near-constant engrossment. It is the latest in a long line of contenders for the status of Great American Novel: a saga of many generations in a single family, set against vast historical processes in emblematic times and places.

Specifically, Middlesex is set in Detroit, a city at both the heartland and margin of America, capital of industry and culture, focus of a great racial divide, and paradigmatic for dizzying rises and breathtaking falls from grace. Eugenides uses the territory of Detroit, his native city, as the element for a huge variety of American experiences. Baklava, the Nation of Islam, the Rouge plant, 1920s rum-running, 1970s San Francisco, Santa Fe lesbian lifestyles, Prairie-style domestic architecture, Orthodox church architecture, WW2 in the Pacific, Michael Dukakis in a tank, baseball on the radio, Artie Shaw, prep schools, Grosse Pointe white flight from the 1967 riots, numbers runners, Vernors pop – anything you can plausibly link to Michigan in the 1970s, and much you can't, is worked into the fabric of Middlesex.

There are two kinds of Great American Novels – the place-driven and the voice-driven – though the two are not mutually exclusive, and Middlesex participates in both strands. Place-driven GANs, like Manhattan Transfer and The Known World, take a location and weave America out of the huge cast of characters that place provides. Middlesex does that with Detroit, but equally important to its fabric, and far more notorious among readers, is the voice of its narrator, Cal (Calliope) Stephanides.

Cal, the hermaphrodite girl who grows up into manhood, is a voice in the GAN tradition of Ishmael, Huckleberry Finn, the nameless narrator of Invisible Man, or J. Sutter in John Henry Days. Interesting in his/her own right, Cal is also someone well-placed to observe everything in his/her world. As a participant in both genders, s/he can empathize with both male and female Americans (and scarcely less important, as the scion of an immigrant Greek family, s/he is at once both insider and outsider, preppie and wetback).

The conceit of a character who knows the experience of both sexes is as old as Tiresias, and has been a frequent enough staple of modernist and postmodernist fiction (think of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, or Tahar Ben Jelloun's Enfant de sable). The genius of Middlesex is to work this portentous device into the flat, matter-of-fact tones of the late-baby-boom American Midwest. Eugenides, his narrator, and I were all born of mixed white ethnic descent within a year of one another near the shores of the Great Lakes, and one of the things I admire most about Middlesex is its capturing and preserving of the language and culture of that slice of American history. Middlesex is definitely out for the big game of Big Themes, but it never forgets its roots in closely-observed realism – just as it never abandons plot for rumination. Cal's intersexual nature is not magic (as in Orlando) or a cultural imposition (as in L'enfant de sable), for instance, but a plausible, factually-grounded biological condition that is far more complicated than cultural gender alone (because it contains and subsumes cultural gender). Hermaphroditism in Middlesex never becomes symbolically fraught. Its literal freight is quite enough for Cal to deal with.

The older I get, the less I appreciate ideas in novels, and the more I find that energy – perhaps what Hazlitt called "gusto" – is the real principle of literary greatness. Middlesex has energy to spare. I suspect that the novel will date well, to become one of those books that tells the future not just what life itself is like, but what our lives, places, and language were like.

Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002.