At the end of the second chapter of Middlesex, the first chronologically, Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides, brother and sister, are dancing in the grape arbour outside their house in the village of Bithyinios, on the slopes of Mount Olympus, overlooking the town of Bursa. It’s 1922. ‘And in the middle of this, before anything had been said outright or any decisions made (before fire would make those decisions for them), right then, mid-waltz, they heard explosions in the distance, and looked down to see, in firelight, the Greek Army in full retreat.’ The decisions that will be made relate to their unsiblinglike feelings for one another (Lefty’s feelings are revealed, to the reader at least, through his taste for town prostitutes who look like his sister); the explosions are set off by the Greeks in flight from the invading Turks. The burning of Smyrna will follow, in which more than one hundred thousand Greeks and Armenians will die; Desdemona and Lefty, fleeing from the flames to America, will marry and have a child, whose own child will inherit the recessive joker-gene his grandparents unknowingly carried, and will be born apparently female, only later to turn out to be male. Smyrna will be taken by the Turks and will become Izmir (‘modern-high rises, amnesiac boulevards, teeming sweatshops, a Nato headquarters’); Cal will be a pseudo-hermaphrodite, suffering from 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. Jeffrey Eugenides does both background and foreground in all the necessary detail. He flips the switch from near to far; particularly telling moments encompass both, in artful combination. The oddest thing about the telling is that it’s all made magnificently plausible: very nearly every impossible event is elaborately justified and motivated.
Olympus is a reasonable location for a view of the beginnings of a disaster that is the story’s catalyst, an engine-house of flame: the reflective parts of the narration that follows deal in Odysseus, the Minotaur, and Zeus creating the world from an egg (‘the white flew up to become the sky, the yolk descended into earth’). Also Princess Si Ling-chi, who, legend records, discovered silk when a cocoon fell into her teacup as she was sitting under a mulberry tree. She instructed her maid to take the loose end, which had unravelled in the heat, and walk (she walked and walked). The silk thread reconnects us to Mount Olympus – in Justinian’s time missionaries smuggled silkworm eggs out of China to Byzantium; in Bithynios Desdemona grows silk cocoons, and she will try to take her livelihood to Detroit, though, since silkworm eggs appear on immigration officials’ list of parasites, she will be forced to abandon them. One advantage of Olympus for the storyteller is its mythical altitude, which gives the most commanding view. The other is the idea of pastoral innocence: Bithynios, with fewer than a hundred inhabitants (some, admittedly, inbred), belonged to a forgotten, unadulterated world. Modernity was below: Bursa, gently – but, as it turns out, briefly – taken from the Ottomans, ‘its quiet, declining streets abloom with minarets and cypress trees’. Everything began in 1922: from here we will descend. For the three generations of Greek Americans who people Middlesex, the mulberry trees of Mount Olympus are an appropriately antique beginning: they are the egg inside which everything began.
Characters are important in novels – and Middlesex has plenty – but they demand something to define themselves by, and against: a background that determines who they are and where they have come from; or scenery that sets them off. Cal Stephanides (né Calliope, known until 14 as Callie), who, aged 42, narrates his history and pre-history from his position as cultural attaché at the US Embassy in Berlin, understands the difficulty. ‘You used to be able to tell a person’s nationality by the face. Immigration ended that. Next you discerned nationality via the footwear. Globalisation ended that. Those Finnish seal puppies, those German flounders – you don’t see them much any more. Only Nikes, on Basque, on Dutch, on Siberian feet.’ But if a doctor can mistake a baby boy for a baby girl (things aren’t always what they ought to be), even a face might not have been enough. In archaic times – 1922 again – there were more reliable indicators: ‘In those days you could identify a person’s nationality by smell.’ There’s a whiff of nationality as Desdemona escapes by boat with Lefty from the fires of Smyrna to Ellis Island. ‘Lying on her back with her eyes closed, Desdemona could detect the telltale oniony aroma of a Hungarian woman on her right, and the raw-meat smell of an Armenian on her left. (And they, in turn, could peg Desdemona as a Hellene by her aroma of garlic and yoghurt.)’ So far, so determinedly genetical; but Eugenides has a theatrical imagination: his other – much shorter – book, The Virgin Suicides (scenery: suburban decay), unconventionally and successfully narrated the deaths of five young girls in the voice of a Greek chorus of neighbourhood boys, undifferentiated, mystified and besotted. Eugenides’s predilection for drama isn’t necessarily a failing (it worked then): it’s shared by his characters, to disarming effect. On the deck of the Giulia, en route to America, Desdemona and Lefty stage a courtship. They meet, as if by chance, and exchange courtesies; they begin to elaborate on invented relatives. The other passengers gossip, and then cheer them on; Lefty, ‘grandly, on one knee’, proposes, ‘in full view of 663 steerage passengers’; they are married on board. It’s a fabulous piece of acting, the stage-set and audience the other emigrants on board the suddenly would-be cruise liner, and beyond them the sea. The narrator intervenes: ‘Couldn’t they have said that they were already engaged? Or that their marriage had been arranged years earlier?’ ‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘But it wasn’t the other passengers they were trying to fool; it was themselves.’ Their play-acted courtship was a way for them to get to unknow themselves, to remythologise themselves by developing a past they could live with, unfamiliar and therefore permissible. Their act is a kind of avoidance. The chattering chorus of celebrants here isn’t background – the passengers are strangers, not part of their self-defining past – and they aren’t scenery. They are a necessary part of the romantic comedy, a backdrop that does more than concentrate the attention: they help legitimise what’s going on downstage.
Elsewhere, scenery threatens to intrude; but when it does it tends to charm. The book’s first chapter, somewhere after the middle chronologically, has Milton (Lefty and Desdemona’s son and therefore also nephew) and Tessie (Milton’s second cousin) at home in Detroit attempting to determine the sex of their second child – though biology turns out to be more fickle than science allows for. Milton has been advised by his chiropractor friend Peter Takakis, who is around for the family’s traditional Sunday afternoon open-house debating session, that – since male sperm swim faster than female sperm – a couple, to have a baby girl, ‘should have sexual congress 24 hours prior to ovulation’. The theory requires a very accurate thermometer to establish the precise moment at which the eggs are released. Tessie, forgivably, isn’t keen: ‘What do you think this is, Milt, the Olympics?’ This sort of genial banter sets the pattern for the Stephanides household. The genetic ancestor of the warm and reassuring place into which Calliope/ Cal is born may be Greek, but its fictional ancestors, more conventionally stagey, are movie-derived: Jewish families from the Bronx. The backchat never stops, and Milton is its finest proponent. He’s a lovable contrarian: he is known for complaining about the price of candles in church; on Sundays he and his friends argue about Nixon, Kissinger and Cyprus (Milton, proud of his adopted country, won’t countenance the idea that American technological know-how could have had anything to do with – another – Turkish invasion). But there’s a serious purpose to the fun. Though Milton never makes it easy, the Sunday gatherings function as necessary background for the characters: they help them re-establish their roots. Storytelling begins here. It matters that this particular gathering, preceding Cal’s conception, is returned to more often than any other event (it’s a book that likes to repeat and backtrack). If the burning of Smyrna is the story’s catalyst, this is the crux that demands the story’s telling. Eugenides is purposeful and deliberate, and has to manufacture a psychology that drives his narration. This moment contains in embryo both Cal’s individual story – about to be born, what will he be? – and the longer story of an immigrant America trying to define itself. Cal is primed to write before he even reaches the womb.
He’s also primed to digress. After it hits America, past Calliope’s birth (p. 215), up to her transformation (p. 396), the book encompasses the mechanics and politics of the Henry Ford factory, Prohibition-era gin-running, the Depression, the troubled beginnings of the Nation of Islam, the Second World War, the Detroit race riots of 1967, Vietnam, and an exemplary story of assimilationist success. The one-time Calliope, being synonymous with the muse of epic poetry, is determined to go around the houses, indirectly. He deals with his subjects (apart from the wars) in definitive set-pieces, illustrated from the viewpoint of someone we know. Here’s Lefty at Ford:
Every 14 seconds Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. This camshaft travels away on a conveyor, curling around the factory, through its clouds of metal dust, its acid fogs, until another worker fifty yards on reaches up and removes the camshaft, fitting it onto the engine block (20 seconds). Simultaneously, other men are unhooking parts from adjacent conveyors – the carburettor, the distributor, the intake manifold – and connecting them to the engine block. Above their bent heads, huge spindles pound steam-powered fists. No one says a word. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. The camshaft circles around the floor until a hand reaches up to take it down and attach it to the engine block, growing increasingly eccentric now with swooshes of pipe and the plumages of fan blades. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. While other workers screw in the air filter (17 seconds) and attach the starter motor (26 seconds) and put on the flywheel. At which point the engine is finished and the last man sends it soaring away . . .
He isn’t the last man, it turns out. The ‘Line’ goes on, ‘back to the Foundry where the Negroes work, goggled against the infernal light and heat’ – and beyond, to the coalmines that produce the fuel that drives the machinery that makes the engines. This mechanical hell, the Foundry at its core, all sparks of molten metal, will erupt in the race riots several set-pieces and a couple of hundred pages down the line. Violent overheating is the end the language here must aim at, but – perhaps Eugenides doesn’t want to hammer home his points – the passage doesn’t entirely tend that way: to keep the balance, there’s a hint of celebration of Ford’s mechanised utopia. It certainly doesn’t sound apocalyptic: the mechanism of the repetition isn’t hellish, but lulling. The refrain is like a necessary rest, a pause for breath before the descriptive engine starts up and moves on; despite the fact that Wierzbicki, Stephanides and O’Malley can’t stop, the writing lingers on them over and over again, and each time the repeat telegraphs its arrival. Lefty’s constant presence isn’t a demonstration of an infernal process but an interruption of it. Repetition has two opposing uses in writing: confirmation and reassurance; or ensnarement and threat. Eugenides – forced to flip back the switch from far to near, to keep our man in view – prefers to reassure. And then there’s the word ‘swooshes’: this is a Legoland factory.
The narrative trend towards reassurance is rationalised by Eugenides’s psychological determinism. The other significant point Cal keeps returning to is Berlin, 2002. He wears a goatee, bespoke suits, Thomas Pink shirts; he smokes Davidoff cigars: all a means of defence, a parody of masculinity. On recent dates, he has played the typical man, he says: dinner, candles, expensive wine, a kiss – and then they never hear from him again. But now he has met Julie Kikuchi, an art photographer and ‘Asian chick’ (her words: Asian chicks are the last stop for closet gays – not that she thinks Cal is one – because their bodies are most like boys’), and in a mutually unthreatening – and frankly sickening – series of chaste encounters, they begin to understand each other. ‘“Your eyebrows are like little black caterpillars,” I said. “Flatterer,” said Julie, still shooting.’ The baby-talk is a way of skirting the issue, and it’s the pattern of Cal’s courtship: roundabout, dilatory, postponing the central moment of revelation.
Middlesex, in its magnificent circumambulation and in its suggestive gender-based possibilities, seems to promise strangeness, but it doesn’t make good on its Olympian opening. All the book’s magic – if magic is what we hoped for – is present in the seed of its idea. Anything wilder is prohibited by Cal’s impeccable conservatism, and the nature of the condition that is chosen for him. If Eugenides had wanted a modern examination of the creative consequences of hermaphroditism – or, at least, a 1970s version – he could have chosen a mosaic condition, XY/XO, which produces a genuine hermaphrodite with indeterminate genitals; or even the fairly common congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which results in hormonal imbalances that masculinise the genitals of XX children and may also masculinise the brain. But Cal is male and always was: the gradual but purposeful story he tells is a boy’s story, the submarine (as it’s put) mysteries of the goddess-girl-women of his (then, ‘her’) playmates in the sports-field changing-rooms; an incipient awkwardness; fumblings; a climax in a bursting-forth of his half-understood ‘crocus’; diagnosis (courtesy of a doctor modelled on the currently fanatically discredited John Money, who believed and perhaps believes that gender is socially established in a child’s first two years, and advocated surgery for a normal life); a spell in the wilderness (a San Francisco emporium of the exotic) to come to terms with who he/she is; and reconciliation, with the Prodigal Son returned to the fold. Cal makes claims for his story’s feminine circularity, but this is phrase-making: the plot develops along unexpectedly expected lines. And it’s coy.
Much of the plot is reassuringly predictable. When the Detroit race riots begin, we know that Milton’s restaurant will be burned down, but we also know that the three insurance policies that his father insisted on taking out on the place will cover it. What is unexpected is that two of the insurers refuse to pay out in full. But there’s no functional reason for the twist, since from this point on Milton is very rich indeed: for the purposes of the story, limitlessly so. Though it looks like disappointing the reader in a ‘realistic’ way, it has no upsetting consequence: it’s a cosmetic effect. It’s a symptom of a bastardised form of realism, a habit of everyday storytelling that depends on the common-sense notion that nothing ever works out perfectly. Eugenides has a funny attitude towards reality. The book’s jacket-flap, which includes a picture of him with goatee and smart turtleneck sweater, and mentions that he lives in Berlin, might prompt you to wonder whether this Greek American, too, has a very small willy. I doubt he does: he aims to convince, and managing to make you believe that it might all be true must give him a big kick. Oddly, while enforcing the facts of a more sober world, the novel preserves the pattern of the magic. Very close to the end, Milton has an excursion in a flying car, though it turns out that this must be a projection of a near-death hallucination: gravity, naturally, asserts itself. There are precisely two surprises: peripeteia that are elaborately worked up to. Both, peculiarly, follow from car chases, and both work by revealing that someone who was apparently a stranger is in fact rather more familiar to the reader. The mechanical nature of these (non-integral) twists, performed without much conviction, contributes to a feeling that Eugenides is a better kind of writer trapped inside another novelist’s skin. But final confirmation comes two pages from the end. In a moment of lucidity, long-suffering, bedridden Desdemona reveals to her (now) grandson (and grand-nephew) that she was his grandfather’s sister. However, since we knew this on page one, the revelation is less of a thunderclap for the reader than it would be for poor Cal. It’s a moment of classical anagnorisis, but what it reveals explains only one thing: how the narrator came to narrate his tale, to project himself down all those generations. (A wise woman told him, and, after all those Sunday afternoons, he knows the lingo.) The centrality of this moment, the rationalisation of the telling, points to (what I hope is) Eugenides’s true interest: the means of storytelling, not the product.
One thing – the only thing? – about Middlesex that can’t be planned and deliberate is the depth at which the succinct and telling writing is buried. In establishing the back-story for the set-pieces, Eugenides covers some of the ground of a subtler novel: his plot forces him to write well in the less grand moments. His agent in the First Temple of the Nation of Islam in 1932 under the mysterious prophet W.D. Fard is Desdemona, who works there, teaching the women to grow silk. But since she hasn’t worked before, first she needs to need a job. The effects of the Depression tell on her personally within a paragraph or so; Lefty has to work hard to keep his underground speakeasy going, and in two impressive pages Eugenides brings alive a kind of domestic tragedy: Lefty is shut out from the world of his wife and children in tiny, unspoken, complex ways. ‘He switched the light on and, in its glow, Desdemona saw her husband’s face screwed up with a malice she’d never seen before . . . It was the face of someone new, a stranger she was living with.’ And he tells her to get a job. But the genuinely unexpected moments happen at a microscopic level that the scale of the book obscures. Here is Callie’s teacher, Mr da Silva:
Mr da Silva had spent a summer in Greece six years before. He was still keyed up about it. When he described visiting the Mani, his voice became even mellower than usual, and his eyes glistened. Unable to find a hotel one night, he had slept on the ground, awaking the next morning to find himself beneath an olive tree. Mr da Silva had never forgotten that tree. They had a meaningful exchange, the two of them. Olive trees are intimate creatures, eloquent in their twistedness. It’s easy to understand why the ancients believed human beings could be trapped inside them. Mr da Silva had felt this, waking up in his sleeping bag.
‘Unable to find a hotel one night, he had slept on the ground, awaking the next morning to find himself beneath an olive tree.’ This is the pattern of myth, inherited from translations of Homer: a formulation that bears the imprint of classical grammar. The linguistic register, too, stands out from the surrounding sentences (‘awaking’, ‘beneath’). The ‘Mr da Silva’ that comes after the snatch of myth – in place of a neutral ‘he’ – is free indirect speech, the distancing locution of a child referring to a teacher, enacting the respect and formality that an adult deserves. Then: ‘Olive trees are intimate creatures, eloquent in their twistedness. It’s easy to understand why the ancients believed human beings could be trapped inside them.’ This is a pattern of a different kind, a reflection of something that – in a muddier version – could be found in a child’s composition, the transmission of a personal obsession. It’s a great pity that this type of very un-Olympian compression – the intimate and interior determines speech – has to be so resolutely disguised in the book. But perhaps that’s another form of defence.