For me, Middlesex is one of those books that I’ve been hearing everyone rave about for years but, for whatever reason, never got around to reading myself. Eugenides belongs to that category of slow-working, brilliant American writers who seems destined to go down in history as one of our greats (including folks like Franzen, Lethem, and Chabon). His first novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993), was widely praised before being made into a film in 1999, directed by Sofia Coppola (her debut, incidentally), which garnered even more readers for the book. And that was just his debut. Nine years later, along comes Middlesex, and it takes the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, as well as being a finalist for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award.
It’s ostensibly the story of Calliope, who later becomes Cal, as she grows up in Detroit, and then elsewhere. Cal is raised as a girl, though biologically she’s an alpha-5 reductase hermaphrodite. To put it simply she was raised as a girl, thinks she’s a girl, pees sitting down and whatnot, but she’s got a small, largely non-functional, penis—she calls it her crocus—that really didn’t start revealing itself until her teenage years, which were rife with all manner of coming-of-age antics, but with this particularly unique twist to it.
And this is what the back of the novel will tell you, that it’s a story about this particular character. But the vast majority of the novel is this glorious, richly detailed, far-reaching backstory to her/his life, beginning with the brilliantly unique story of her/his grandparents back in Smyrna during WWI, their falling in love, their emigration to the US, their arrival at Ellis Island, their settling in Detroit, their raising of their children, one of whom is Calliope’s father, his whole life story, as well as his wife’s, and on and on. There’s so much backstory that, as I read, I almost became frustrated with the absurd volume of it all. Apart from a couple of pages at the beginning of each chapter written in Calliope’s adult voice, it’s entirely a beautiful, atmospheric, generations-spanning saga so lengthy that, even 300 or 400 pages into the book, you know very little about Calliope, who’s supposed to be the protagonist of the thing. I say I almost became frustrated because it’s just too damn good to be frustrated. It would have been maddening but for its brilliance.
That’s part of the strange appeal of the book for me. It drew me in because of what I thought would be its focus (a coming-of-age story about a young girl-boy in a Greek family in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s), already a very interesting-sounding premise, but it turned out to be something so much larger than that. And though Eugenides has done a lot of brilliant things with this grand novel, perhaps the finest strength of the book lies in this fact: that it exemplifies the notion that one’s life story cannot at all be contained within its own framework. Though Calliope wasn’t born until 1960, her story began much earlier, and it simply cannot be told without all of this precursory stuff and its mountains upon mountains of detail. Put more frankly, the backstory is the story. There is no backstory; there is only the story. Where one’s life begins has, in the grand scheme of things, very little to do with when one is born.
Long story short, literally, that’s about it. The novel is a wonderful work, a true American masterpiece, that deserves every bit of praise that it’s gotten over the years.