25 Women to Read Before You Die

The New Republic Online
Thursday, October 3rd, 2002



by Jeffrey Eugenides


A review by James Wood

In his memoir The Noise of Time, Mandelstam recalls a haughty friend who used to say, disdainfully, that "some men are books, others — newspapers." The remark might be adapted. Some books are books, others — newspapers. In recent years, the large American novel has frequently aspired to the condition of journalism. The great quarry of the last decade, and sometimes the great cemetery, has been the social novel, the vast report on the way we live now, the stuffed dossier, the thriving broadsheet streaming with contemporary brightnesses. Tom Wolfe's barely literate plea for more of just this kind of fiction has always seemed nonsensical in the age of Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, and most recently Jonathan Franzen. We have too much socially and politically obsessed fiction, not too little. Mimesis deserves a holiday. The bright book of life need not include all of life.

Jeffrey Eugenides's second novel seems, at first glance, a victim of this journalistic ambition to cover the twentieth-century American news. It is about three generations of a Greek-American family, and it moves from 1922 to the 1970s. We pass, as you would expect, through Prohibition, the Depression, World War II, and the civil rights movement, and we end with the OPEC oil crisis. There is even an opportunistic "update," in which the narrator glancingly mentions September 11, as if the failure to include that catastrophe would make the novel untimely or in some way obsolete.

In addition to this reportorial urge, Middlesex is a child of its moment in its occasional recourse to those excitements, patternings, and implausibilities that lie on the soft side of magical realism and should be called hysterical realism: two cousins conceive their children on the same night and at the same moment, and these two children later marry each other; a character is named Chapter Eleven and seems never to have been given any other name; the Greek lady who flees Smyrna in 1922 later retires to Smyrna Beach, Florida; the novel's hermaphrodite narrator, Calliope Stephanides, who is born a girl but later decides to be a boy (hence "middlesex"), conveniently moves to a house on Middlesex Street, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in the 1960s, and conveniently narrates his story from present-day Berlin, formerly a city of two halves or sexes (which, of course, he remarks upon) — and so on.

It seems hard to convince contemporary novelists that true aesthetic patterning has little to do with such gunning symmetries, but is more akin to the ghostlier ideal of musical motif and repetition. Still, these deformities notwithstanding, Middlesex is certainly a novel and not a newspaper; and it is an often affecting, funny, and deeply human book. For all its scope and its size, for all the data that crowds this novel, Eugenides seems a charmingly ingenuous writer. A comparison might be made with that other big American novel, The Corrections. Despite his considerable powers as a dramatist, Franzen rarely leaves himself at the door. He is an intensely knowing novelist, and his many essaylets and op-ed riffs are written in a high-journalistic prose, and clearly by Franzen himself; they could be broken off the main stem of the book and crumbled into The New Yorker without much amendment. Eugenides, too, enjoys his authorial jags, and some are better than others, but he generally avoids knowingness. His prosy riffs are his narrator's, and they belong jealously to his novel. They are more likable than Franzen's, if less obviously smart. Above all, they partake of his narrator's curious innocence.

This is a way of saying that Eugenides at his best is a storyteller. Innocence in storytelling is a kind of learned cognitive naïveté, whereby the writer seems to discover each new detail synchronously with the reader. The narrator's revelation poses as self-revelation. This talent, actually very rare in contemporary novelists, is inseparable from a quality of epistemological delight, a joy in knowing. (Knowingness, by contrast, is joyless.) On the third page of the novel, the narrator's brother is sent upstairs to the attic where his grandparents live in the family home. The attic of Desdemona and "Lefty" Stephanides, grandparents of Chapter Eleven and Calliope Stephanides, is a curious one, stuffed as it is with the physical reminders of the old Greek world they left behind in 1922. But the reader does not know this yet. And so he must follow the novelist:

In sneakers he passed beneath the twelve, damply newspapered birdcages suspended from the rafters. With a brave face he immersed himself in the sour odor of the parakeets, and in my grandparents' own particular aroma, a mixture of mothballs and hashish. He negotiated his way past my grandfather's book-piled desk and his collection of rebetika records. Finally, bumping into the leather ottoman and the circular coffee table made of brass, he found my grandparents' bed and, under it, the silkworm box. Carved from olivewood, a little bigger than a shoe box, it had a tin lid perforated by tiny airholes and inset with the icon of an unrecognizable saint. The saint's face had been rubbed off, but the fingers of his right hand were raised to bless a short, purple, terrifically self-confident-looking mulberry tree. After gazing awhile at this vivid botanical presence, Chapter Eleven pulled the box from under the bed and opened it. Inside were the two wedding crowns made from rope and, coiled like snakes, the two long braids of hair, each tied with a crumbling black ribbon. He poked one of the braids with his index finger. Just then a parakeet squawked, making my brother jump, and he closed the box, tucked it under his arm, and carried it downstairs to Desdemona.

The reader instantly recognizes that he is in the presence of a real storyteller, whose admirable desire is to goad our tactilities. There is much confidence, dash, and charm in this little passage. First, the oddity of the objects themselves: the parakeets, the silkworm box, the wedding crowns of rope, the braids of hair. Next, the precision of the writing: exactly "twelve" birdcages, which are "damply newspapered"; the odor of "mothballs and hashish"; the box of olivewood and its perforated tin lid. And finally, the passage's charm: the little boy's domestic terror, the thick gloom or hideous mess of the room nicely suggested by that comical verb "found" ("he found my grandparents' bed"), and the delighted smirk that runs beneath the description of the priest on the box blessing the "short, purple, terrifically self-confident-looking mulberry tree." (The mulberry tree, remember, provides the silkworm with its home.)

Much of Eugenides's comic charm resides in, and flows from, his loyalty to his Greek-American background. If he has a curiosity that seems sweeter than the average postmodern writer, the run-of-the-mill I.Q.-with-an-iBook, it may have something to do with a willingness to let his ethnic material speak for itself. Certainly, although his novel is blemished by elements of didacticism and prolixity, and he is not without the postmodern urge to turn clouds of suggestion into storms of fact, Eugenides has a simple confidence in his Greek material that disarms his vices. He approaches his Greek-American immigrants without overweening mediation, as if these people have not been described very much until now. The result is usually a descriptive immediacy, vividly comic, often precisely realistic, but with that tilt of the real that narrative needs.

Thus we meet Desdemona Stephanides, who with her husband flees the Turks in Smyrna in 1922 and arrives in Detroit, where she has cousins. Desdemona, a formidable creature, has the habit of fanning herself when she gets angry or excited. "To anyone who never personally experienced it, it's difficult to describe the ominous, storm-gathering quality of my grandmother's fanning," says Calliope, her granddaughter and the book's narrator. And Desdemona's fans, it should be said, are eccentric: "the front of the fan was emblazoned with the words 'Turkish Atrocities.' Below, in smaller print, were the specifics: the 1955 pogrom in Istanbul in which 15 Greeks were killed, 200 Greek women raped, 4,348 stores looted, 59 Orthodox churches destroyed, and even the graves of the Patriarchs desecrated." Again, it is not only the verve of the writing that appeals, but its exactness. The idea of an "atrocity fan" is wonderful enough, but Eugenides's real talent lies in the detailed coda to this passage: "Desdemona had six atrocity fans. They were a collector's set. Each year she sent a contribution to the Patriarchate in Constantinople, and a few weeks later a new fan arrived, making claims of genocide and, in one case, bearing a photograph of Patriarch Athenagoras in the ruins of a looted cathedral." This is the kind of detail that makes narrative.

In addition to Desdemona, there is her husband Eleutherios, or "Lefty," who opens a speakeasy (later a diner) called The Zebra Room, and whose son Milton (Calliope's father) becomes a successful businessman, as the founder of Hercules Hot Dogs. Milton is a limited fellow, an instinctive American patriot and a Nixon supporter. Unlike his wife Tessie, he does not go to the local church, the Assumption Greek Orthodox, "having become an apostate at the age of eight over the exorbitant price of votive candles." Calliope often mocks her father, for the reader's benefit: "The only way my father could think of to instill in me a sense of my heritage was to take me to dubbed Italian versions of the ancient Greek myths." And there is Peter Tatakis, "Uncle Pete" as he is known, a proponent of the Great Books series, a collection of one hundred fifty world masterpieces (he has read them all twice). In the old country Uncle Pete had wanted to be a doctor, but the "catastrophe" — the flight from the Turks — ended that. "In the United States, he'd put himself through two years of chiropractic school, and now ran a small office in Birmingham with a human skeleton he was still paying for in installments."

In general, Eugenides's gift is for summation, for gargoyles rather than architecture. His characters tend to be introduced in blocks of description, which turn out to house their somewhat stable essences. It might be said that most of his Greek characters resemble each other — namely, that they all partake of the same kind of voluble Greekness, an ethnic robustness that skirts caricature. When Calliope tells us that throughout her childhood the slightest mention of the Depression would set Desdemona off "into a full cycle of wailing and breast-clutching," and that even the phrase "manic depression" once had this effect, we are being handed, too liberally and easily, a melodramatic essence, the fat wailing granny from the old country. In such cases, as so often in melodrama (in Babel's Cossacks, for instance), the complexities of characters are sacrificed on the altar of "vividness," and are simplified into mere appetite, which then becomes those characters' supposedly signal, but actually quite generic, attribute.

Eugenides often coaxes his Greek material; but in this regard he only coasts on it, as in a rather glib line like "every Greek drama needs a deus ex machina." Indeed, there are times when he comes close to the comedian's one-liner: "Easter Sunday, 1959. Our religion's adherence to the Julian calendar has once again left us out of sync with the neighborhood." The ecclesiastical reliably brings out the joker in Eugenides: "As far as I could tell, what happened every Sunday at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church was that the priests got together and read the Bible out loud. They started with Genesis and kept going straight through Numbers and Deuteronomy. Then on through Psalms and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, all the way up to the New Testament. Then they read that. Given the length of our services, I saw no other possibility."

If his people sound a little alike, they are ably diversified by the many lanes of the novel's effluviating plot. Middlesex is an enormously ambitious book, whose many stories do indeed gather to present a broad swath of Greek-American life. More, Eugenides wishes to use his three-generational structure to suggest something about fate, the bequeathments of genetics, and the possibility of revolt once fate has displayed its cards. To carry this thematic weight, he has chosen a very peculiar vehicle: his narrator's hermaphroditism. Desdemona and Lefty, we quickly learn, are brother and sister. Back in Bithynios, their tiny village in Asia Minor on the slopes of Mount Olympus, the parentless siblings began their incestuous affair on the crooked logic that although they were brother and sister, they were also third cousins, and cousins marry all the time. The relationship is jolted into hasty marriage by world events: suddenly the Turks are at their door and they must flee Smyrna, which is on fire. They marry on the boat to America, and pledge to keep their secret a secret.

It is hard not to admire the vigor with which Eugenides writes about Bithynios, and then about the sack of Smyrna. (It also allows him cheekily to quote from The Waste Land: "Mr Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant/unshaven, with a pocketful of currants ...") As Smyrna burns, the huddled citizens wait on the harborfront to be collected by anyone who will have them. A British frigate, anchored just offshore, makes no charitable gesture. Desdemona and Lefty, along with an Armenian doctor named Nishan Philobosian, are rescued by the French. A stirring epic froths forward. But what Eugenides gains in scope he loses in precision. A scene set on the British ship, in which fatuous officers scan the harborfront with binoculars and calmly say to each other, "Jolly crowded, what?" and "Nice cigar, what?" is cartoonish, an impression hardly helped by Eugenides's odd decision to have a "Major" (an army rank) on a naval boat, and to call the Royal Navy "His Majesty's Marines," whoever they were.

But once the novel arrives in America, it gains authenticity from the community in which Desdemona and Lefty live. They share a house in Detroit with another cousin, Sourmelina Zizmo. Lefty briefly works in the local Ford factory, then as a bootlegger for Sourmelina's husband, Jimmy. Sourmelina and Desdemona become pregnant on the same night, and give birth, respectively, to a daughter, Theodora (Tessie), and a son, Miltiades (Milton). When Jimmy dies, Lefty opens The Zebra Room, which in time will become a successful diner, until it falls victim to the Detroit riots of 1967. (Detroit's fires repeat, in American guise, the blazes of Smyrna.)

Meanwhile heredity advances with silent footfall. Desdemona is terrified that her incestuously conceived son Milton will be retarded or handicapped. He is neither, but he is carrying an invisible flaw, a mutation of the fifth chromosome — that is, hermaphroditism, a genetic oddity common in Bithynios, where for centuries families had intermarried. It is dormant until Milton marries Tessie, Sourmelina's daughter, also his cousin, who is carrying the same genetic flaw. Milton and Tessie's first child, Chapter Eleven, is unblemished. But their second, Calliope Stephanides, born in 1960, is a hermaphrodite, or more exactly a little girl who possesses recessed and barely visible male genitals, a victim of "5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome." An alert obstetrician might have noticed the tiny deformity, but Calliope was delivered by Dr. Philobosian, the Armenian refugee from Smyrna, now seventy-four and a little dithery.

Calliope maps the entanglements of her family inheritance with characteristic jollity. "So, to recap," begins one chapter. "Sourmelina Zizmo (née Pappasdiamondopoulis) wasn't only my first cousin twice removed. She was also my grandmother. My father was his own mother's (and father's) nephew. In addition to being my grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty were my great-aunt and -uncle. My parents were my second cousins and Chapter Eleven was my third cousin as well as my brother." Eugenides uses this genetic spaghetti as a way to embody, literally, the sentence of a family fate. Calliope, who in the magical realist mode is able to recount not only her birth but also her pre-history back to Bithynios, cannily ponders this burden, and how to outwit it. At times too cannily: we hear about how "in the twentieth century, genetics brought the Ancient Greek notion of fate into our very cells," but that in the twenty-first century we have discovered that a surprisingly small number of genes actually determine our behavior. "And so a strange new possibility is arising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback."

The book clearly turns on this idea of destiny, and of destiny resisted, both by free will and by helpless action: first when Desdemona and Lefty have their lives changed and in turn change their lives by coming to America, and then when their granddaughter chooses, at the age of thirteen, to become a boy. Calliope, we are supposed to believe, is the synthesis that unites the restless dialectic of eros, and perhaps of history: a character neatly informs us that "Plato said that the original human being was a hermaphrodite. Did you know that? The original person was two halves, one male, one female. Then these got separated. That's why everybody's always searching for their other half. Except for us. We've got both halves already."

Whenever Eugenides presses on his themes this way, he bruises them; he stops trusting in his tale, apparently unaware that its very form incarnates its theme better than can any commentary. Alas, we are in a journalistically essayistic age, when a necessary component of a serious novel is thought to be a theoretical discussion of what the book is about. It is easy to forget that in fiction themes ideally mature like aloes, losing their stems as soon as they blossom; that is to say, themes need to forget themselves in the mind of the novel, need to break free of their beginnings. Eugenides is rather fond of reminding us just how neatly he has planted everything.

Yet once again Eugenides's charm, his life-jammed comedy, rescues the novel from its occasional didacticism. One can put it this way: a novel narrated by a hermaphrodite comes to seem largely routine, as if Calliope were simply rather fat or tall. A fact that might scream its oddity, and that might have been used again and again heavily to explore fashionable questions of identity and gender, is here blissfully domesticated. This Eugenides achieves by a patient and often funny adherence to the ordinary, which was exactly how he made the peculiar material of his last novel, The Virgin Suicides, seem just regularly suburban, Cheever-stamped fare. In short, Eugenides makes Calliope credible: she is not merely a theme (though she may sometimes be thematically used and abused, poor girl), but a high-spirited high school girl growing up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Paradoxically, Eugenides's boldness, his decision to risk an emblem as obvious as a hermaphrodite narrator (an emblem, that is, of helpless destiny), is what steers the novel away, finally, from the temptation of editorial writing.

Calliope may well be emblematic; but she is above all a hermaphrodite. One is reminded of Eudora Welty's crack that Melville needed a symbol so large and so real that it really had to be a whale. In some similar way, Eugenides's narrator, the product of many confused historical threads, had to be very, very confused. But the novel is helped enormously by Calliope's likability. Long before she is born and appears properly in the novel (about page 215), we know her voice, because she has been telling us the history of her parents and her grandparents. So once she is installed in the book we are happy to follow her, from her baptism (she urinates on the priest) to her familial removal to the house on Middlesex Street and her enrollment at the fancy Baker and Inglis School for Girls at the age of twelve.

At school she falls in love with another girl: Eugenides has an interesting skill for evoking the love-thick air of teenage schoolrooms. In the math teacher's room, for instance, we are told that "a picture of the great mathematician Ramanujan (whom we girls at first took to be Miss Grotowski's boyfriend) hangs on the wall." A trip with the Love Object (as Calliope refers to her) to a bayside house yields some very good writing, though always strict and precise: "Out in front of us the bay flashed silver. The bay had scales, like the fish beneath." And so Calliope grows up — until the moment when, in part because of her affair with the Love Object, she discovers that she is not a girl, or not only one.

And then the skies come down, in Greek fashion. Her parents take her to New York to a specialist called Dr. Luce, a marvelously trendy, early-1970s figure, a slightly shady pioneer just breaking the newly fertile crust of "sexology." Calliope runs away and has many adventures, and while she is missing, her father Milton, founder of Hercules Hot Dogs, dies in very strange circumstances that involve the local priest, Father Mike. The novel ends with his funeral, somberly. But the book's merriness cannot be suppressed, and the residue that the comic spirit leaves behind gleams with energy. Perhaps the funniest of many delightful episodes in the novel involves the visit of Dr. Müller, a nutritionist, to the Stephanides home. Dr Müller is doing a longevity study, and is writing an article on "The Mediterranean Diet." He is impressed by Desdemona's great age, and "to that end, he plied her with questions about the cuisine of her homeland.

German by blood, he renounced his race when it came to its cooking. With postwar guilt, he decried bratwurst, sauerbraten, and Königsberger Klopse as dishes verging on poison. They were the Hitler of foods. Instead he looked to our own Greek diet ... as potential curatives, as life-giving, artery-cleansing, skin-smoothing wonder drugs. And what Dr. Müller said seemed to be true: though he was only forty-two, his face was wrinkled, burdened with jowls. Gray hair prickled up on the sides of his head; whereas my father, at forty-eight, despite the coffee stains beneath his eyes, was still the possessor of an unlined olive complexion and a rich, glossy, black head of hair. They didn't call it Grecian Formula for nothing. It was in our food!

The doctor shows the family the graphs that he has made, listing names and birth-dates of Italians, Greeks, and a single Bulgarian living in the Detroit area. The doctor thinks that Desdemona is ninety-one. The family does not mention that "Desdemona was actually seventy-one, not ninety-one, and that she always confused sevens with nines....We couldn't. We didn't want to lose out to the Italians or even that one Bulgarian."

This is characteristic of the novel's high-spirited, Greek-obsessed, ethnically competitive clan. And it is characteristic, too, of Eugenides's conjuring of childish innocence. He has accomplished one of the most difficult novelistic tricks: an adult voice using the full resources of the language and the proper prestiges of adulthood (Calliope is recalling his story as a middle-aged man now living in Berlin) that is simultaneously a child's voice, representing an excited, receptive, and bolting response to the world. Eugenides successfully combines the two visions, and so the book is joyously Calliope's. In our day, this achievement of a mature uncorruptedness represents something of a triumph.

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