Helen of Boy

Because America is a big country, and because one can never tell what one might need when one gets to the other side of it, the prudent traveler packs as much as he can manage to carry. This was Tom Joad’s theory when he tied everything he owned to his truck in The Grapes of Wrath. And Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides’s big, messy, intermittently amusing new novel, seems to make a similar jangling sound as it comes down the pike, top-heavy as it is with every reference that could possibly be relevant to the Greek experience in America. Here are Tiresias, the Delphic oracle, the Smyrna merchant (named Eugenides) in T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” More currently, there’s “whiskey down” (rye toast, in coffee-shop-speak), and the timeless Greek-American tragedy of Mike Dukakis strapping on a too-large helmet and climbing into a tank.

In one way, Eugenides’s new book takes its place in the vast and growing genre of the hyphenate-American novel – but that’s only the half of it. Middlesex is both the name of a Grosse Pointe McMansion, the spoils of a second-generation immigrant triumph, and a description of the difficult-to-visualize genital mutation that afflicts Calliope Stephanides, the narrator of Eugenides’s multigenerational saga. The book is a rare double hyphenate – the Great Greek-Hermaphrodite-American novel. Or, more accurately, the only one.

Middlesex traces the wanderings of a gene, and a family, through three generations, from inbreeding among ethnic Greeks in a mountain village in Turkey to its surprising expression in the coddled blandness of a rich American suburb. Calliope is the cheery, slightly obsequious tour guide to the life of her ancestors, like a noisy uncle at a family slide show, nudging you in the ribs when something’s supposed to be funny, ready with a bit of explication or to provide a gloss on one of her ancestor’s odd choices, quick to apologize when she’s been confusing or long-winded or (“Sorry if I get Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too”) obtuse.

The narrator’s time-travel privileges, while enabling a tourist’s convenience, seldom provide a native’s insight. It’s fast-paced Greek-American vaudeville, generations of Stephanideses stepping lively as the curtain falls on one era – good-bye, Depression; hello, World War II – and rises on another. But the profusion of character and incident means that this long novel still doesn’t have the scope to engage deeply in any one of them. No event, and there are large ones – the flight from the docks as Smyrna burned in 1922, the flight from Detroit to Grosse Pointe 45 years later as that city burned during the riots in 1967 – seems to color the atmosphere for long. And Calliope’s ancestors, whether in funny hats or giant Cadillacs, don’t seem to come fully alive.

Middlesex is a melting pot in which anything and everything – stylistically, historically, genitally – can be put to some use. But it’s like a game of cards where everything’s wild. The book is eventful, unpredictable, eager to entertain, but missing the tension a more disciplined approach would have provided.

It’s a relief, at page 215, when Calliope is born and takes center stage at last. The book accelerates as the heroine – think of someone in a barrel, that strange body, heading toward a waterfall – moves inexorably toward as complicated an adolescence as one can imagine. This is Virgin Suicides territory, teenage angst tweaked and amplified, and, though lacking in the uncanny mythmaking of Eugenides’s earlier book, it can be a lot of fun. Middlesex also provides the advantage of (moviemakers, take note) two distinct virginity losses, to a tawny Grosse Pointe princess and her brother.

Calliope’s moment of transsexual truth comes shortly thereafter when a seventies hipster doctor resolves to remove his undescended testicles and his “crocus,” treat him with hormones, give him surgically the nature that nurture has already dictated, make an honest woman of him. Calliope – or Cal, as he becomes when he decides he should be a boy – does what any boy would when the phrase “surgical removal of the testicles” starts to be bandied about: He sets out for California, in a journey that, Eugenides doesn’t fail to point out, echoes closely his grandparents’ flight from Smyrna.

Cal’s condition is, patently, intended as a metaphor for otherness, for bifurcated personhood, for (Greek) nature versus (American) nurture, for the shadows that old-country village life still can cast over American suburbs. But the image is so potent – or impotent – that it overwhelms the story’s other half.

By Jeffrey Eugenides.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 529 pages; $27.

Helen of Boy