Reflections: Middlesex

It has been six years since Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex. If it were in my power, I would give it to him again tomorrow. This is a magical novel, weaving together the story of a young hermaphrodite and a middle-aged country in crisis with as much success as Salman Rushdie united a generation of infants and their new-born country in Midnight's Children (a claim I do not make lightly).

Where Eugenides excels is in creating the texture of a series of moments in America's history from perspectives detached from their national or global consequences. American history appears on the page as it is experienced in life: as the seemingly transparent and very personal lens through which we view ourselves and our relationships with others. So, we see the myth of the black rapist so prevalent in the 40s responded to by a Greek-American bartender in Detroit:

    [W]hen a group of men came in [to Lefty's bar], boasting of having beaten a Negro to death, my grandfather refused to serve them."Why don't you go back to your own country?" one of them shouted. "This is my country," Lefty said, and to prove it, he did a very American thing: he reached under the counter and produced a pistol. (Eugenides 169)

This is not a description that revels in fellow feeling among marginalized peoples, nor does it make the smallest incursion into politically correct sentimentality. Whether Lefty responds with any race-consciousness is left unclear; in some respects it is unimportant. It was the stressful confrontation of a day, not an event in the creation of the History of race relations in America.

Eugenides is also, of course, a comic writer, self-consciously vying with Aristophanes for witty satire. The pointed dart he throws first at Dukakis and then at the American voting public in the following tangent is among the funniest moments in the book. The target is luckily hit: it excuses an otherwise dire lack of relevancy to the narrative at hand. When describing young Milton, Lefty's son, who has just joined the military for reasons of romantic heroics, Eugenides stops to make these observations, ostensibly to compare the way that Milton and Dukakis look in military garb:

    "Behold the banners of the Democratic Convention! Look at the bumper stickers on all the Volvos. "Dukakis." A name with more than two vowels in it running for President! The last time that happened was Eisenhower (who looked good on a tank). Generally speaking, Americans like their presidents to have no more than two vowels. Truman. Johnson. Nixon. Clinton. If they have more than two vowels (Reagan), they can have no more than two syllables. Even better is one syllable and one vowel: Bush. Had to do that twice." (185)

He has a point. Whether or not it is worth interrupting the narrative for is a question that only the individual reader can answer. It does, in any case,  contribute to the overall project of the story: describing the America in which a hermaphrodite can, surprisingly, find a place, shoehorned between liberal values and medical advances, sexual liberation and gay rights, Greek Tragedy and Greek American.

1 comment:

Maia said...

I loved this book. I thought it was just simply beautiful.