I'm happy to report that I'm starting to get some feeling back in my arms and my physiotherapist says that, with time, my thumbs will once again become opposable. Still, next time I read the novel-of-the-moment by one-of-the-finest-fortysomething-authors-of-our time, I'm going for the Books on Tape version. After Chabon's The Amazing Adventures ofKavalier & Clay (636 pages), Franzen's The Corrections (568 pages), and now Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (532 pages), I just can't take the assault to my body.
And there were other strange sensations I experienced as I read Eugenides' long-awaited follow-up to The Virgin Suicides. Déjà vu mostly. Because I'd already written the same story, as nonfiction, three years ago. Middlesex is about a girl named Callie who, at age 14, learns that she's not a female at all but a male, victim of a rare genetic quirk that makes the genitals appear feminine in childhood. At puberty, Callie grows a penis and, after a visit to a famous turtleneck-sweater-sporting sex researcher, learns that the cramps in her lower abdomen are not her hoped-for first period, but the ache from her undescended testicles. Callie becomes Cal. Talk about girl, interrupted.
And talk about a Twilight Zone-ish parallel to my first book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, which is about a boy who lost his penis during circumcision and who was converted to girlhood on the advice of the real-life counterpart to the aforementioned turtleneck-sporting sex researcher. Like Callie, my protagonist was raised as an unsuspecting girl, until all hell broke loose in his teens. It's not everyday when you read a novel where you have to wonder if, perhaps, your own book was one of the author's research sources. If mine was, then Jeffrey Eugenides deserves kudos for the independence of his mind and the power of his imagination. Because despite the sometimes amazingly close parallels, my book receded (even for me) to the most distant echo—and Callie's first person narrative voice took over entirely.
And all facetiousness aside, Eugenides' book couldn't really be more different than mine. Middlesex is a sprawling, multigenerational family saga that has much more on its mind than kicking around the old nature-nurture debate. It's about Greek immigrants to America; it's about brother-sister incest; it's about—oh, gosh, it's about a lot of things. In fact, I'm not convinced even Eugenides could really say what it's all about. However, I do know, from spending a few years talking to folks raised in the wrong sex, that there's nothing more harrowing than being confused about that fundamental building block of identity. There's enough inherent drama in that situation to fuel several novels. But interestingly, Eugenides chose not to write one of those novels. Callie is supremely well-adjusted and content. Sure, there are moments of drama and unease (her first kiss with a girl; her first kiss with a boy; her intial dread of the sex researcher), but for the most part s/he sails on, unperturbed, strangely untroubled. Even when she runs away from home and ends up working in a horrendous strip club in San Francisco, displaying her sex organs to the gawking clientelle as she floats in a glass-walled swimming pool, her tone is breezy, untraumatized, amused. While her indomitable spirit makes you admire and like Callie, her indefatigable sunniness did rather beg the question why Eugenides had chosen hermaphroditism as his subject matter. At times I wondered if he was perpetrating a kind of Nabokovian trick on the reader: taking a radioactively charged emotional situation then deliberately neutralizing it, draining off its drama and writing, instead, a whimsical family saga about a crew of lovable, sit-commish Greeks ("Everybody Loves Milton"). Even when Cal's father dies as a direct result of Cal's having run away from home, the boy is blithely untroubled by the kind of guilt you'd expect most 15-year-old boys to feel—especially a Greek 15-year-old boy. I mean, Eugenides calls up enough echoes of the ancient Greek tragedians, how'd he miss this big fat pitch of an Oedipus ball?
But then he does occassionally seem bleary or distracted in the writing. At his best, Eugenides is capable of prose as ravishing as James Joyce's. Here's Cal looking at his sleeping girlfriend's naked abdomen: "What else compares? Gold filings shifted around the magnet of her navel." That image of the tiny blonde hairs flickering with the movement of the girl's breathing—does writing get any better? But then take this passage from 12 pages earlier. It's a major turn in Callie's story, the point at which she, at 14, has sex with a boy, and learns some ominous truths about herself. It's one of those moments that a novelist can't afford to fumble. It is, let's face it, one reason we've stuck with Cal for 378 pages. We get this: "Now he was inside my underpants and now he was ... inside me! And then: pain. Pain like a knife, pain like fire."
The ellipses, the italics, the imagery (knife? fire!) are, I'm afraid, all Eugenides'. A writer of his gifts cannot write this lazily unless his mind is elsewhere, which is what makes me suspect that, at heart, he wanted somehow to be writing a slightly different book than the one we have here. But there are, as you know, enough delights within its 532 pages to make us grateful (despite the pains in our wrists) that we have this one.
John Colapinto is the author of the novel About the Author and the nonfiction As Nature Made Him, about a case similar to Calliope's. Judith Shulevitz writes the "Close Reader" column for the New York Times Book Review.