Friday, April 3, 2009
Middlesex: The Agony of a hermaphrodite...
I was born twice: first as a baby girl on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974
– Calliope Stephanides, from Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex
ALMOST 10 years after the morbid and quirky The Virgin Suicides, which told the story of the mysterious suicides of four sisters, Jeffery Eugenides is back with his second novel, Middlesex, a funny and weird yet strangely touching story of a hermaphrodite, a person who was born with ambiguous genitals.
This time around, Eugenides puts us in the shoes of the lead character, Calliope Stephanides, a hermaphrodite who is now a middle-aged man, and writing the story of how Calliope the baby girl became Cal, the 41-year-old man. Cal’s condition is the result of a “recessive mutation in the 5th chromosome” passed on for generations, and ending up in Cal through the incestuous relationship of his immigrant grandparents (who are first cousins). One thing led to another, and Cal’s parents, Milton and Tessie (who, incidentally, are second cousins themselves) end up marrying each other. Although their first son was normal, their attempts to get a daughter eventually resulted in the birth of Calliope, a child who is half-male, half-female. However, Calliope’s condition was not discovered until much later.
In the beginning of each chapter, we learn that life as a half-male, half-female individual is filled with unpredictability and caution. In the men’s room, he only uses the stalls, never the urinals. Occasionally, the female “Calliope” surfaces, and starts checking his nails, doing a hair flip, and even falling into a girlish walk. Cal also recounts his budding relationship with a girl, Julie, where he goes through the usual paces of attraction, pursuit, and then the self-doubt and dread of Julie’s reaction when she finds out.
In the narrator’s own words, “I’ve got a male brain. But I was raised as a girl.” After her birth, the story focuses on the “female” Calliope as she struggles through childhood, not aware of her true condition. She goes through childhood as a normal girl, and all seems fine until the time comes for her to reach puberty. She doesn’t get her first period, her breasts don’t develop, and she begins to worry about certain feelings she has towards the maturing girls in the shower room.
This is the most engrossing part of the book, as Cal frets over the increasing “maturity” of the girls around her, going through the depression and worries that come with her seemingly late puberty. Furthermore, while I couldn’t wait to find out how Calliope discovers her condition, I also found myself dreading that moment of discovery, though not through any fault of the writer.
In truth, Eugenides manages to make her feelings at being left behind in the puberty race seem so miserable that I wanted that moment quickly done with to spare her more misery. Instead, he slowly unfolds the story, piece by piece, from her first kiss (with a girl), to her sexual explorations with a girl simply called “the Obscure Object”.
Once the secret is out, the story shifts to New York, where Callie is taken to Dr Luce, an expert in the field of sexology. So begins the second part of her life as a guinea pig in the hands of the doctor, which finally leads to a pivotal part of her life where she discovers her true condition from a battered dictionary in a public library. In this masterful stroke, Eugenides twists a seemingly normal chain of references in the dictionary to ultimately compare her hermaphroditic condition to being a monster, a connection that haunts her thereafter. It also leads to another significant turning point in Calliope’s life, deciding to be a male instead of a female, thus casting aside Calliope to become Cal.
From this point, the story moves along at a faster pace. After spending three-quarters of the book detailing her flaws, her past and her discovery, the last quarter seems a little rushed.
Nevertheless, Eugenides still manages to wrap things up nicely with a bittersweet ending that brings the curtains down on Cal’s life, both present and past.
All in all, Middlesex is a pleasant read, at times quirkily amusing, at times gut-wrenching and, for the most part, quietly sympathetic towards its flawed lead character. Living up to a successful debut novel is not easy and, with Middlesex, Eugenides shows that The Virgin Suicides was no mere flash in the pan, and that there will be greater things to come from him.
Middlesex: Agony of a hermaphrodite
Review by MICHAEL CHEANG
at 3:23 PM