Hermaphrodite’s History Is a Storyteller’s Bonanza

Middlesex , by Jeffrey Eugenides. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 529 pages, $27.

Although we tend to take its genetic makeup for granted, the novel is a hybrid form, epic crossed with history, romance, comedy, tragedy. Sometimes the traits of other shadowy ancestors appear: confession, folk tale, sermon, travelogue. Curious mutations occur-how else to account for, say, Agatha Christie’s specialized sub-genre purity?-but mostly the novel is an ordinary mutt, a mongrel whose rich and varied chromosomes blend in the best melting-pot manner.

Consider Jeffrey Eugenides’ delightfully harmonious Middlesex : Map its genome and you’ll find ancestors as diverse as the case study, the immigrant saga and the sitcom. A shaggy-dog story of a hermaphrodite’s grandparents, parents, childhood, girlhood and early, equivocal boyhood, it begins with an epic’s formal invocation of the muse, accommodates incest, massacres, riots and freak shows, and ends with suburban elegy, a bittersweet lament on the death of patriarchy. Horrific events occur, cruel truths are discovered, passions build and crash, but Mr. Eugenides keeps the tone light-almost, at times, breezy. Middlesex sweeps the reader along with easy grace and charm, tactfully concealing intelligence, sophistication and the ache of earned wisdom beneath bushels of inventive storytelling.

Much of the credit should go to Cal (né Calliope) Stephanides, our narrator, an assistant cultural attaché at the American consulate in Berlin. At age 41, Cal has resolved to tell the world about his ambiguous gender and (literally) Byzantine genetic heritage; he wants, as he says, to leave a record of his “impossible life.” Born and raised a girl, Callie began to “virilize” in her 14th year; now, as Cal says, “I operate in society as a man.” As a narrator, his voice, despite the ordeal of an intersexual adolescence, is relaxed, wry, sympathetic. No trace of self-pity. On the contrary, Cal is quietly proud of his “ability to communicate between the genders, to see not with the monovision of one sex but in the stereoscope of both.” Mr. Eugenides-whose first novel, The Virgin Suicides , featured a corporate narrator, a gang of nerdy boys fixated on a quintet of doomed sisters-has this time created a narrator whose doubleness makes him a particularly good companion. Early on, Cal won me over with this description of his diminutive uncle Mike, a “sweet-natured” Greek Orthodox priest: “His shortness had a charitable aspect to it, as though he had given away his height.” The best glimpse we get of the adult Cal, who has lived more than half of his life as a male, is this wistful account of Callie’s lingering presence:

“When Calliope surfaces, she does so 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. She inserts her chimp’s feet through the trousers of my legs. On the sidewalk I’ll feel her girlish walk take over, and the movement brings back a kind of emotion, a desolate and gossipy sympathy for the girls I see coming home from school …. The sick fluid of adolescent despair that runs through her veins overflows again into mine. But then, just as suddenly, she is leaving, shrinking and melting away inside me, and when I turn to see my reflection in a window there’s this: a forty-one-year-old man with longish, wavy hair, a thin mustache, and a goatee. A kind of modern Musketeer.”

Cal’s “prefetal” narrative begins in 1922, when his paternal grandparents, Greeks living in Turkey, fall in love. Their love story is complicated by war (the Turks are about to expel the invading Greek army and wreak revenge on the Hellenes who’ve lived in Asia Minor for centuries) and by the fact that they are brother and sister. Lefty and Desdemona escape the nightmare of burning Smyrna, arrive at Ellis Island as man and wife, settle in Detroit and have a son, Milton, who eventually marries the daughter of his parents’ cousin, another immigrant. Because they both carry a mutated gene on the fifth chromosome, the grandparents’ incestuous union skews the genetic odds: Four decades later, Calliope becomes the victim of “sporadic heredity”-a recessive trait has found delayed expression.

She is born in 1960, 215 pages into Cal’s narrative. A 74-year-old presbyopic doctor delivers her; he sees, on examination, only “the clean, saltwater mussel of the female genitalia” (the two-inch “crocus” that so troubles Callie will appear only later, with the onset of puberty). As she grows into an extravagantly beautiful little girl, the feel of the novel changes subtly. The pace slows and the texture thickens-there’s now a complex inner life to explore. At last we reach the critical moment of Callie’s metamorphosis: Another love story, 14-year-old Callie’s consuming crush on a girl in her class at school, takes us right up to the moment when she has to become he .

Because Cal is so engaging and his transformation so intriguing, it’s easy to forget how broad and crowded Mr. Eugenides’ canvas is. Behind Cal there’s his family (its secret history well concealed), an immigrant success story: Milton starts a chain of restaurants serving Hercules Hot Dogs, and the Stephanides move out to Grosse Point, to a modern house on Middlesex Boulevard. Behind her family there’s Detroit, which in 1968 erupts in a race riot, a conflagration that reminds a wailing Desdemona of Smyrna in flames. And, of course, behind Detroit there’s the rest of America-Vietnam and Watergate, two national dramas to balance Callie’s private turmoil.

There are myriad opportunities for Mr. Eugenides to batter us with his themes. For every dichotomy that presentsitself-male/female, Greek/Turk, black/white, nature/nurture-he could point to a dialectical solution. But though Cal explicitly reminds us that “We’re all made up of many parts, other halves,” no lecture follows. The spirit of this novel is anything but polemical-the sumptuous details of daily life distract, and Cal’s descriptive urge takes over. Here, for example, he begins with an abstraction, the incongruity of seeing his grandmother installed in the family’s spare, sleek modern house, then quickly latches onto specific memories:

“Everything about Middlesex spoke of forgetting and everything about Desdemona made plain the inescapability of remembering. Against her raft of pillows she lay, exuding woe vapors, but in a kindly way. That was the signature of my grandmother and the Greek ladies of her generation: the kindliness of their despair. How they moaned while offering you sweets!”

Not all of Middlesex is successful. There’s an unfortunate slapstick car chase near the end-an echo of earlier vehicular mayhem-and some heavy-handed manipulation of the plot: For the sake of drama, Desdemona has to drop out of the book for more than 200 pages (she takes to her bed). But these lapses seem to fit with the novel’s carefully studied casual look. It’s a little like Callie’s mismatched features-”taken all together, something captivating emerged. An inadvertent harmony.”

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.