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The Fountain of Salmacis
on 5 February 2016
Middlesex is a great big rambling family saga. Its central theme, on which author Eugenides plays a number of variations, is that of people who find themselves caught between different cultures. That is not to say it is a story of the exclusion of outsiders, it is a more positive tale of people creating their own cultural space between societal norms. In sympathy with this and like the later Marriage Plot, the novel is structured around a central pivot, a family party at which the unborn central character Calliope Stephanides is sexed by her grandmother. Balanced around this fulcrum are the story of Cal's parents and grandparents, and on the other side, of Cal's own development.
Two generations before Cal's birth, Lefty and Desdemona are ethnic Greeks ejected from their village by the invading forces of Kemal Ataturk. They flee to America where they find themselves not quite acceptable to WASP society but very much part of the white world from the African American viewpoint. The title of the book refers, on a factual level, to the family home bought by Cal's parents on the margins of desirable middle class suburbs. It is however, fundamentally about Cal herself, who unbeknownst to anyone until her mid teens, is a genetic hermaphrodite, raised as a girl, but crossing between the poles to live in later life as the man dictated by his Y chromosome. Disclosing Cal's nature is not a spoiler, as it is revealed in the very early pages of the novel.
She only comes to centre stage, carving out her own space on the gender spectrum,in the second half. The first half is much more about the immigrant, and specifically Greek immigrant, experience in America, finding a space on the ethnic spectrum, and gradually becoming more American with each generation.
Middlesex is a long book, something which has recently attracted criticism. However it is a book which carries its length well. It extends over more than eighty years, taking in the aftermath of the First World War, the Pacific conflict in World War 2, race riots in Detroit, the counter cultural sixties, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and mixes in incest, teenage sexual awakening, and family jealousies. This is a book which is long in the way that Dickens is long. Its intricate plotting rewards the little bit of effort needed to stay with it.
There is also some lovely writing in here. Three images, amongst many stick with me. A passage where the rhythm and structure of the prose echo the beat of a production line. The picture of a little girl riding her bike behind a tank on a mission to save her father from the middle of a race riot. The lanky teenage Cal all limbs and hair, looking like a member of the Ramones.
While this is a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent and engaging read, it does hit a few duff notes. Early on, the identity of a preacher for the Nation of Islam lacks credibility. Much later in the book, that lack of believability is also apparent in a philanthropic pornographer, although to be fair, his role in the story is probably more figurative than real. He seems to exist to throw a spotlight on a self aggrandising doctor whose treatment of Cal is as exploitative as that of the sex industry. Thirdly there is a strange final thread involving a kidnapping and ransom which seems oddly melodramatic and out of keeping with the rest of the novel.
That said, the finale of the book is highly satisfying. This is no post modern work with the reader left to make his or her own choices in an inconclusive conclusion. After a good old fashioned family saga, albeit with a massively unconventional family, Eugenides gives us a proper happy ending, leaving the reader with a fantastic final image.
This is an excellent, entertaining, ambitious and ultimately successful work.