I'd be happy to engage in some what-could-have-been-isms and to suggest how (in my opinion) the inherent drama of the intersexed child might have been put to more effective novelistic use in Middlesex. I say "novelistic" use because my chief problems with the book are what I see as its shortcomings as a work of art—not its shortcomings as a "case history" of hermaphroditism. But the two are intertwined. For this, I'm going to wear both my hats as a writer: the journalist who wrote a book about intersex conditions and the novelist who wrote a novel, About the Author.
The drama of hermaphroditism is nothing if not a family drama. It is a condition that sends a shock wave rocketing through the generations and one that forces each member of that family—parents and grandparents, nieces and nephews, cousins and siblings—to confront their deepest biases and beliefs about gender. Any expert in intersexuality will tell you that the birth of a sexually ambiguous child into a family strong in immigrant beliefs and background is particularly disruptive since such families often operate under comparatively rigid, traditional notions about the roles of men and women. Boys will be boys; girls will be girls. And yet the family is confronted with a child of indeterminate sex whom doctors usually push to have surgically altered to be a "girl" (since making vaginas is supposedly possible, and making penises isn't). So you have any number of deep-dyed notions in the tradition-bound family being attacked—everything from their religious belief that doctors should not "play God" by choosing a child's sex to the awful bias that often obtains in some cultures: namely, that a boy baby is more desirable than a girl baby. (Witness China, and take your pick of Middle Eastern countries.)
This is why, when I learned that Middlesex concerned an intersexed child being raised in a Greek-American family, I immediately thought, "What a clever, and original, way to unify and animate a multigenerational family epic." Here, apparently, was an opportunity for the writer to show us the early lives of the grandparents in the old country, where their beliefs and traditions were laid down; here was the chance for us to see those beliefs inculcated into their first-generation American children; and then, with the advent of the intersexed child, we'd witness all the familial layers coming together, the cultures and generations and values colliding in the extraordinary conundrum posited by Callie's genitalia.
None of this happens. Partly this is because Eugenides chose an intersex condition (5-alpha reductase deficiency syndrome) that often doesn't make its presence known until the teen years. So no family drama attends Callie's birth and childhood. Incredibly, no family drama attends the discovery of her condition either. Instead, on Page 440, there is a muted moment when Callie silently decides that, instead of submitting to feminizing surgery, she will run away from home. Her parents have not pressured her to go under the knife—or not to. They've simply listened to the doctor's plan for the operation in morose and frightened silence. Callie's surviving grandmother (who has inexplicably taken to bed for over a decade) doesn't even know about her granddaughter's dilemma. Callie simply writes a sweet note to mom and dad saying, "I know you're only trying to do what's best for me, but I don't think anyone knows for sure what's best." And leaves. I am not saying that such a sequence of events cannot be true to life (although it does not accord with any of the hundreds of intersexes I talked to or studied the case histories of). I am saying it is disastrous as art.
It's disastrous because this gargantuan novel has no cumulative effect, no emotional through-line that leads us from Smyrna in the 1920s to the narrative climax of Callie's decision whether to live as boy or girl in the Detroit of 1975. Instead, each generation's experience is maddeningly discrete from the next. Lefty and Desdemona's incestuous romance in the old world is engaging enough, but it is not integrated—dramatically, novelistically—into the other parts of the book. Likewise Milton and Tessie's courtship and marriage. Once Callie is born, they drop out as anything but essentially comic relief. As a reader who has faithfully followed these characters through hundreds of pages, you naturally become frustrated and disgruntled to discover that their function within the larger drama is thrown away, dumped, or (worse) never existed. And this seems particularly egregious precisely since Eugenides took as his theme a subject (intersexuality) that, by its very nature, is the ultimate multigenerational family disaster.
Eugenides is fond of evoking the great ancient Greek writers. He should have remembered Aristotle, who points out that one of the primary elements to great storytelling is unity, the mysterious force of art that pulls a tale into a satisfying and inevitable organic whole. Middlesex lacks any such unity. Its sole unifying force is Callie's voice, her particular tone of arch and self-conscious whimsy (not to mention self-satisfaction)—a tone, I would argue, dangerously at odds with the subject matter. In my research for As Nature Made Him, I did not encounter a single intersex who, in their teen years—under the conflicting pressures of family, doctors, peers, and their own thwarted erotic natures—did not seriously consider (or attempt) suicide. This doesn't mean that Eugenides was under any obligation to make Callie similarly unhappy. But I think he was obliged to be aware and responsive to the imperatives—psychological, narrative, emotional—of his novel's central premise.
And if I can use this platform to rant for a moment longer, I'd like to expand my gripes about Middlesex's essential lack of thematic disciplineto include a number of other highly hyped American novels of recent vintage. I know that American novelists and critics are forever rejoicing that our novels are wonderful grab bags of stuff into which anything can be delightfully tossed and that, in this way, American writers have freed themselves from all that old-fashioned narrative rigor that makes, say, British novels so starchy and formal. But when does the exuberant tossing-in of everything that occurs to the writer become just plain Bad Writing? It's not just a question of lame sentences or clichéd phrases. God knows that writers like Jonathan Franzen and (to a lesser degree) Eugenides are writers of euphonic, A-plus sentences. But for structure and pace and unity of action and (oh, man) economy of expression, these guys are rank dunces.
But enough for now. I can't sign off without saying, though, that I agree with you that the best parts of Middlesex are the beer and pot-fueled sex parties that Callie attends in the mid-1970s. I was a teenager at those parties, too, and Eugenides brought it all back with sickening fidelity. But why in heaven's name did he have to call the girlfriend "the Object"? And how about calling the brother "Chapter 11"?
Oh, and you're right. James Joyce was way over the top.