Middlesex 

Why Am I Suppoosed To Care?
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 19 2002 3:27 PM

Middlesex 

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Dear John,

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Sorry for taking so long to reply. It may not be as easy to integrate a newborn into the new economy as I had hoped. I'm going to have to make a more strenuous effort to Taylorize my workplace.

But to get back to Callie. Should s/he be a more tragic figure? (I've been waiting since the 1970s for a good occasion to use that odious solecism.) You make a good case for bringing a greater level of scientific realism to the dilemma of the hermaphroditic or intersexed child. You lay out all the tension and anguish and self-lacerating self-doubt that that child would surely experience, especially in a Greek family with traditional mores, especially when s/he hits adolescence. And yet. And yet. I can't help imagining what you've fleshed out as the plot line of a Lifetime movie. Of course it's miserable having weird stunted not-quite-one-thing-not-quite-another genitalia! Of course you freak everyone out! Of course they torture you! Etc.

You can tell that Eugenides is worrying about sounding TV-movie-of-the-weekish, because he spots the danger and heads it off in yours and my favorite scene, the one in the cabin in the woods where Callie has sex with the Object's brother Jerome. He penetrates her, it hurts like hell (you quoted the lines), then she pushes him off. "It was all over now," thinks Callie. "There was nothing I could do. Jerome would tell Rex. Rex would tell the Object. She would stop being my friend. By the time school started, everyone at Baker & Inglis would know that Calliope Stephanides was a freak. ... I could leave tonight. ... I could steal the Object's parents' car ..." and so on. And then, she realizes something that in some weird way is worse. Jerome hadn't even noticed! He "had the smile of a boy who, on a summer night, had gone all the way. He had the smile of a guy who couldn't wait to tell his friends."

Isn't that an ironic twist? You're finally forced to admit to yourself that you're a genuine freak, a one-hundred-percent genetic oddity, and the guy who forced you to face up to it is too caught up in his own petty drama to even ... notice?

No, I don't mind that Callie never has to confront all the social horror implicit in her situation. I'm glad. My issue with the book is that I don't get the point of it. Not: I don't get what message it's supposed to convey. (I don't think this is message literature.) Not:  I don't get what she represents. (Not the plight of the hermaphrodite, of that much I'm sure.) But I don't get why I'm supposed to care. Either I'm obtuse, which is likely, or I have not been made to understand what's at stake.

This is odd, because Eugenides does make me care about Callie. I like her 10 times more as a girl than as a boy, though she is also endearing when she starts trying to be male and makes observations about men's rooms, men's cosmetics, etc. And I do see the validity of the analogy I talked about earlier, between the Greek myths of origin and modern genetics and their equal reliance on a sort of superficial arbitrariness and a deeper and more terrifying determinism. And I rather like the scenes in Octopussy's Garden, the San Francisco sex club where Cal/Callie spends hours with her bottom half underwater, exposed to the stares of the curious, and her top half drowsily smoking a joint. Seems a damn fine description of what it's like to write, frankly.

I could torture myself—and you, and our readers—to try to come up with some theories of what it's all about, but even after those 529 pages it doesn't seem worth the effort. I'm gonna just move on.

Thanks for an extremely enlightening Book Club.

Yours,
Judith

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.

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