Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Sometimes the best twist is not a surprise. Jeffrey Eugenides could have concealed the nature of Cal Stephanides' condition, could have saved it for a big reveal and dropped only tantalizing hints throughout the narrative. Instead, he announces that Cal is an intersex man upfront, and then proceeds to tease us for the rest of the story. Eugenides makes the reader into a participant in Cal's indulgent memoir instead of an audience; we're in on the secret, and we watch and wait eagerly for the moment of revelation for young Calliope. With this bond, Eugenides covers three generations of a Greek family that immigrates to the United States from Turkey. From grandparents with a terrible secret to parents who just yearn for the normative mediocrity of suburban life, Middlesex deserves acclamation for its sweeping scope. Unfortunately, other parts of the book detract from this otherwise-impressive work.
Middlesex is at its best when confronting generational change. Lefty and Desdemona's flight to the United States marks the end of an era and the beginning of the next. Their son, Milton, experiences a similar paradigm change as the civil rights movement reshapes Detroit in the 1960s. The contrasting reactions of grandparents and parents to this change says a lot about assimilation into American culture. Lefty and Desdemona, particularly Desdemona, never feel truly at home in the United States. In the face of so much strife, they have romanticized their peaceful life in Bithynios, and nothing quite measures up against that standard. While they find joy (and headaches) in their children, integration into American society is always elusive at best.
One scene from Lefty and Desdemona's first year in the United States comes to mind. Lefty gets a job working the assembly line at a Ford plant, and two men from "the Ford Sociological Department" visit the house at which he's staying. They inspect it and interrogate Lefty on his personal hygiene habits, the implication being, as an immigrant, that Lefty is somehow less clean (and thus less civilized) than an American. What makes this scene so memorable, for me, is my reaction to how wrong it felt. Discrimination is by no means absent from the workplace today, but I can only imagine the outcry of privacy advocates and libertarians were Ford or another corporation to do something like that today. It is not just wrong but creepy.
And what of the incest between Lefty and Desdemona? I have seen some reviewers question the connotations of Eugenides choosing inbreeding as a vector for Cal's condition. But it is a valid choice, and the incest is not just a means to Calliope's end. It plays a subtle but important role in Lefty and Desdemona's marriage, and it provides Desdemona with a feeling of personal responsibility for Cal's condition.
The brother-sister dynamic is a big deal at the beginning of the book. Lefty and Desdemona, once they move past the "will-we-or-won't-we" stage by surviving the burning of Smyrna, choose to invent new identities for themselves, meet as strangers, and get married while aboard their ship to the States. As Cal puts it when recounting this portion, they did this not to convince other people, but to convince themselves. Despite being attracted to one another, they remain full of misgivings. Lefty seems to have an easier time of it than Desdemona. Eugenides never fully explains why this is, but I suspect it has to do with how Lefty and Desdemona matured differently as adults. Lefty's personality is attracted to risk, to the forbidden and exotic. He rejects the two eligible women in Bithynios because they are bland. But what could be more exotic than one's own sister? We see Lefty's propensity for gambling recur throughout the story. Conversely, Desdemona was raised to take care of her family. She promised their mother she would find Lefty a bride. This paradoxical solution enables her to continue to care for Lefty and fulfil her promise to their mother, but Desdemona never quite reconciles her incest with her religion-centred morality. Her longevity compared to the rest of her generation is almost a form of punishment that allows her to see the fruits, Cal, of her actions.
It seems like a small detail, but it is fitting that the one American product to seduce Desdemona is the soap opera. Although we (and that includes a healthy helping of me) love to denigrate soap operas for their melodrama, wince-worthy acting, and plodding, predictable writing, that doesn't change the universality of soap opera's stories. Sure, they might be stories on drama steroids, but they are unabashedly about the conflicts caused by relationships. For Desdemona, who had only one brief attempt to find a niche for herself outside her household or her church, I can see how this type of television would be appealing. (There are volumes to be said about the attracting, deserving or not, that soap operas have for certain people. I am not the one to say it. Go find someone's thesis from the nineties.)
As Cal's narrative shifts focus from Lefty and Desdemona to Milton and Tess, we get to see how the children of immigrants navigate their identities, which are bridged between two cultures. With Tess this process is not as visible. She begins as a very independent and precocious girl. She agrees to marry Father Mike, but she feels a little guilty for preferring going to movies over helping in the war effort. After marrying Milton and having children, she takes on a much more traditional role as caregiver; unlike Milton, however, she embraces both her Greek and American identities. She is somewhat similar to Desdemona, but with her mother's willingness to accept cultural and technological change.
Milton's decision to join the Navy, his refusal to learn Greek, and his reticence about Orthodox religion are all reactions against his parents, attempts to affirm his American identity at the expense of his Greek one. It is somewhat ironic, then, that he uses his ethnicity to bootstrap his hot dog stand business—but even this he does with the capitalist zeal of an American. For Milton, the struggle is all about achieving that illusive model of the "American family"; constantly he strives toward normality. Eugenides has Cal list Milton's yearly Cadillac not just out of a perverse prosaic desire but to demonstrate a point. A new car is a symbol of status and money; its purchase is an act of consumption in a consumer culture. Similarly, Milton is the driving force behind the family's move from their home in urban Detroit to a suburban neighbourhood with elitist (and discriminatory) real estate rules. He is both running away from the racially-diversifying nature of their old neighbourhood and running toward the dream of a normative American life.
Milton's racism is interesting. One might think he would be more understanding, being a member of an ethnic minority himself and aware of the double standards applied to such citizens. Cal never mentions Lefty and Desdemona inculcating Milton's racism, so it seems to be something he acquired through society. Milton internalizes the institutionalized racism as yet another way of assimilating. I am not asserting that this is the only factor in Milton's racism, just relating my interpretation of his actions. No doubt his beliefs were greatly influenced by other events he witnessed, particularly the riots that resulted in the destruction of the Zebra Room.
What this all means in the context of the story is that Cal is more than just an unusual child. For his grandparents (or at least Desdemona) Cal is a judgement. For his parents, Cal is an anomaly in their carefully-constructed American life. The reactions of Milton and Tess to learning their daughter is intersex are consistent with their characters: Milton seizes upon Dr. Luce's assurances that Calliope can be "normal"; Tess focuses more on Calliope's physical and mental wellbeing. Eugenides foreshadows this conflict with the stereotypically-rebellious yet ambiguously-named Chapter Eleven, who exits the story after quarrelling with Milton over politics and values, returning more because of Cal's disappearance than any mended relationship. It is clear that Milton loves his children and is ferociously protective of them, as demonstrated ultimately by his fatal car chase with Father Mike. Yet he is also wary of anything that hints of abnormality or eccentricity, hence his argument with Chapter Eleven and his emphasis on the "treatment" aspects of Calliope's condition.
It might seem like Middlesex is two separate narratives, one of generations of immigrants and the other of an intersex man, soldered together. Indeed, that might even be the way Eugenides initially developed it. However, the former narrative has a very profound impact on the latter, influencing how Calliope feels after learning of her condition, as well as how Cal feels as he recounts this story to us thirty years later.
This is where Middlesex begins to lose me. Eugenides goes to a great deal of trouble to make present-day Cal a sympathetic character who seems like a real portrayal of an intersex individual. After building up to the grand reveal—to Calliope—the pacing suddenly unravels. Cal runs away and has a number of episodic encounters that influence his perceptions of gender. Compared to the rest of the book, these episodes are hurried and un-nuanced in nature. Clearly there is more to the formation of Cal's new identity than the few months spent as a runaway after discovering his condition. Aside from some oblique mentions of past girlfriends by the narrator, however, we don't get to see that. Our reward for patiently awaiting the big reveal does not materialize. And what Eugenides does give us, although true to the letter of our agreement, does not live up to its spirit.
Calliope discovers the "truth" of her condition, rather than the garbled facts communicated by her parents and Dr. Luce, when she sneaks a glance at Luce's medical report. Of course, she does not understand much of the terminology or its context. Her own fumbling research into this subject does not help matters, for Webster's Dictionary is not the most gentle educator. So Calliope learns that even though she has been raised as a girl, and Dr. Luce believes she has a feminine gender identity, her chromosomal sex is XY. So she's a boy, right? That seems to be the line of reasoning she employs implicitly in her runaway note: "Dr. Luce . . . is a big liar! I am not a girl. I'm a boy. That's what I found out today."
It is almost plausible. But are we really supposed to believe that Calliope, with little to education in matters of sex, gender, and genetics, decides chromosomal sex is the overriding factor in her gender identity? Or are we supposed to conclude that reading Luce's report, which contains all the various lies and fabrications Calliope makes to cover up her attraction to women, provokes an epiphany: "No, no, I'm not a girl! I'm a boy; I've always been a boy!"? I don't know, because Cal doesn't tell us. After spending an entire novel in the brain of an omniscient first person narrator, Cal fails to confide in us at his watershed moment of revelation. This ambiguity is greatly unsatisfying. Maybe I'm not reading close enough, but Eugenides does not seem to drop any hints that Calliope entertains a male gender identity during her childhood. By unconditionally assigning Cal a male gender identity without any internal conflict or justification, as far as I can tell, Eugenides is being as single-minded as Dr. Luce in his interpretation of sex and gender.
If Middlesex is supposed to be an exploration of intersex, it fails, because I don't know what it is trying to say about intersex. When it comes to matters of gender, Cal just decides he is male, with no insight as to why, despite his role as the narrator. When it comes to society's lack of acceptance for intersex individuals, we get a couple of token encounters: some ruffians call him a "freak", and then he falls in with a freak sex show operation in San Francisco. Having come so far, Middlesex approaches the intersex issue but fails to follow through. It is shame, for the generational narrative underlying the first parts of the book is well-done and was so very promising for the rest of the story.