Suffer the Children. (Fiction Chronicle)
Watman, Max, New Criterion
In 1996, Granta published the "Best of Young American Novelists" issue, and this list has been famous ever since. The Twenty under Forty have had varying degrees of success, and everyone thinks that someone was left off, and none of that matters because it was, after all, a silly gimmick to sell magazines. Which it did. Jeffrey Eugenides was on the list, as I was recently reminded when I opened his excellent new novel Middlesex (1) and found myself reading words I had first read in 1996. His excerpt in Granta was from a novel in progress finally published this September. We've been waiting a long time.
Eugenides's first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was slim, weird, and beautiful. He wrote it while he worked at the Academy of American Poets, and I like to think that one can tell it was written in the company of poets. Recalling scenes from The Virgin Suicides is like breathing ether. Your mind goes languorous and foggy. It is a dreamscape of a book, devoid of humor, full of soft-focus characters and the second person plural pronoun.
Characters with cameos in The Virgin Suicides are back, fully developed. Both books take place in suburban Detroit. Both books mention the day that tanks showed up, grinding down the calm suburban streets, during the Detroit riots. Middlesex, unlike The Virgin Suicides, is funny, big, embracing, and wonderful.
"Chekov was right," says Calliope Stephanides, the protagonist of Middlesex, "If there's a gun on the wall, it's got to go off. In real life, however, you never know where the gun is hanging. The gun my father kept under his pillow never fired a shot." Cal's body is the gun, and it satisfies the "narrative requirements."
The reader has known exactly where the gun was hanging from page one, line one: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." Cal is a 5-Alpha-reductase Pseudohermaphrodite, and Middlesex is her/his autobiographical Bildungsroman.
This is, however, no simple Gender Studies graduate thesis. Cal has read Alexina Barbin's autobiography, which "Michel Foucault discovered in the archives of the French Department of Public Hygiene.... Her memoirs, which end shortly before her suicide, make unsatisfactory reading." Eugenides has written a three-generation family history. "Sing, now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation of my fifth chromosome" should give you a sense of its scope. He moves from modern-day Berlin, to the origins of the Black Muslim movement in Detroit, to immigration. Cal's grandfather seizes "the opportunity of transatlantic travel to reinvent himself.... Aware that whatever happened now would become the truth, that whatever he seemed to be would become what he was--already an American, in other words." He marries his sister.
For all the moving around, there are no simulacra, no flat tools to serve the authors, intent. We get to know the people of Middlesex in a broad way that one finds rarely in contemporary fiction.
On my first read, I felt Middlesex sometimes dull. I have come to realize that, considering its topic, dullness is a kind of genius. Think of the prurient possibilities here, the license to think of nothing but sex. A little boredom is welcome.
Eugenides has given weight to the dullness of a typical suburban upbringing. He has refused to ghettoize his oddball character. Cal must figure out who to be and become that person. The obstacles Cal must overcome are idiosyncratic, but so are all of the obstacles of youth. Eugenides normalizes the experience of a hermaphrodite and turns Cal into something other than a freak. This is not a book about a freak. It is, rather, a first-rate book about a family and growing up.
There is another book about family and a child's rite of passage out now, cruising along at the top of the bestseller list where it has been for weeks. …