30 January 2006

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

written 26 Jan 2006

at about the same time that Sam updated our reading list with Middlesex, unbeknownst to him, Ruth left me with her just-finished copy of the book. her one-sentence review was: not the best book, but better than Virgin Suicides, and oh: it's not really about gender at all.

I tend to agree. Sure, it's about gender in some sort of superficial way, but precisely because it remains rooted in a heterosexist framework, it manages to reinforce gender norms even as it uncovers intersexed individuals as one of the core narrative components. and so I'm echoing Ruth's sentiment. perhaps the hetero-centered narrative, in which the central character's intersexuality is continually asserted alongside the equally strong statement that the eventual "he" always liked girls--the fact that the book concludes with the character deciding that he is truly a man means that regardless of how "inter" his sexuality is, it must be resolved, and in the end, his desire was never in question, never outside the heterosexist matrix.

so the book is about an extended Greek family, about genetics, about village life. I find myself unbelievably tired of flashback novels, where the coy narrator "slips" a comment in and then says something like: oh, but we'll get to that later. first I must tell you about the mulberry trees and the silkworms. Rushdie can do that. others fail in every way to be able to pull it off, at least for me. Really excellent authors (Richard Powers) don't need that sort of crap to move between time periods. I'm calling for a moratorium on it, frankly. it's cheap and annoying.

the best parts of the book are in the first generation, the narrator's grandparents, and their departure from what is now Turkey and what was then Greece, as it bloodily transitioned from one to the other. the characterization of the love between the two is the closest one might get to queerness and closeting in the book. the lovely treatment of the grandfather's recession through time before his death is amazing. the descriptions of Detroit are also poignant and quite beautiful, from the pink nights to the discussion of the car factory. Sure, Richard Llewellyn did it better with the coal mining in his 1930s book, but it's still an almost poetic description that Eugenides offers.

My final critique, though (in addition to the thing about the flashbacks) is that at times the book reads like it's a movie script. sometimes quite literally, but it seems out of character to put the narrator's voice in this sort of life-as-film context. It almost seems as if Eugenides is already thinking film rights, which is, again, annoying. they are two different genres for a reason!

Bottom line: a good plane read, an interesting family epic, but I have not yet drafted a letter home about it. a blog, sure, but...

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