Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Why Don't You Just Leave It Up to Nature?": An Adaptationist Reading of the Novels of Jeffrey Eugenides

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Why Don't You Just Leave It Up to Nature?": An Adaptationist Reading of the Novels of Jeffrey Eugenides

Article excerpt

As parables of human nature, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex act as a duet of adaptationist behaviour in which Detroit--arguably one of the hubs of the American Dream--operates as the fulcrum and the events of August 1974--the apex of the Watergate crisis--function as the lever.

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Life isn't meant to be easy. It's hard to take being on the top--or on
the bottom. I guess I'm something of a fatalist. You have to have a
sense of history, I think, to survive some of these things. [...] Life
is one crisis after another.--President Richard M. Nixon

In The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides establishes a spatiotemporal continuum in which humankind shares a range of biological and historical experiences. Eugenides's characters shift in and out of this continuum via processes of adaptation, or, in some instances, maladaptation. The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex can be usefully understood as a single textual entity in which his characters share a common biology and a similar history. While both narratives converge within a distinct spatiotemporal moment--Detroit, Michigan, in August 1974--their fates inevitably become diffused by their capacity for adapting to change. By its very definition, a continuum refers to a constantly evolving force, and in Eugenides's case, that force is twentieth-century American life--a world founded by waves of immigration, manifold attempts at sociocultural unification, and the irrevocable sweep of modernity. In itself, post-industrial Americana entails a nationalistic rage for idealism, a frenetic desire for cultural perfection and dominion that produces such phenomena as Prohibition, isolationism, and McCarthyism. This nationalistic zeal for homogenization transmogrifies, in the 1960s and 1970s, into racial disharmony, the political convolutions of the Vietnam conflict, and the sexual revolution. With the disintegration of the nuclear family and widespread cultural malaise in the offing, perfection is simply no longer possible. This reality is made resoundingly clear on the evening of August 8th, 1974, when President Nixon announces his resignation at the climax of the Watergate crisis. In The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, this very moment symbolizes the collapse of American idealism.

Both The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex straddle a spatiotemporal continuum that affords Eugenides a means for commenting upon the idealism inherent in the American Dream. In The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides illustrates the experiences of the doomed Lisbon family, an American success story established through their privileged suburban livelihood, steady income, and a mortgage that promises to grant them literal ownership of a piece of the nation and its destiny. Middlesex depicts the trials and tribulations of the Stephanides family, who immigrated to the United States in August 1922 as refugees from the massacre of Smyrna's Greek population by Turkish forces, only to arrive in a euphoric America on the verge of economic collapse. They dream of an American perfectionism in which good values and hard work will pave the road to success. Yet the Stephanides family arrives in a country that is trying to maintain this very same ideology of perfection through Prohibition, quasi-xenophobic immigration restrictions, and, much later, a powerful sense of nationalism that blossomed after America's experiences in the Second World War, culminating in the political witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. As the increasingly convoluted situations of the two families begin to coincide in the American race for financial and cultural dominion, the most significant moment of revelation in Eugenides's spatiotemporal continuum occurs in the early 1970s--and most particularly during the Watergate scandal. For Eugenides, this is the signal moment in twentieth-century American history, the apex of social change: after more than a decade of racial turmoil, rapidly shifting sexual values, and the cultural cynicism wrought by the Vietnam War, the nation finds itself beset by a political crisis that questions the legitimacy of the American government, the last bastion of its citizenry's faith and idealism. …

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