In 1967 the world-renowned if somewhat Dickensianly named sexologist John Money was offered a case he couldn’t refuse. A boy, not yet 18 months old, had lost his penis in a horribly botched circumcision. The boy’s parents had seen Money on television preaching the wonders of sex reassignment–was there anything he could do for their son? Money obliged: “Joan,” as she would come to be called in the scientific literature, was outfitted with a makeshift vagina and began to be raised as a girl. Science was thrilled; as Cal (née Calliope) Stephanides, the narrator of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, explains of an analogous situation in his own story: “I’ve got a male brain. But I was raised as a girl. If you were going to devise an experiment to measure the relative influences of nature versus nurture, you couldn’t come up with anything better than my life.” Until just a few years ago, when Joan was revealed to have been rather insistently John the entire time, the experiment had a profound influence on scientific and lay thinking about gender roles and especially about the viability of sexual reassignment; Kate Millett in Sexual Politics cited Money’s earlier work to support the notion that gender was primarily a matter of rearing.
That view has shifted, but a similar conflict still brews at the somewhat buried heart of Middlesex: Because of an incompetent physician and a traditional immigrant upbringing, tall, broad-shouldered and nonmenstruating Calliope has managed to make it to 14 without noticing that in addition to an enlarged clitoris she possesses undescended testes and (for this last she can be forgiven) an XY karyotype. Her frightened parents have brought her to Dr. Peter Luce (né Lucre?), the renowned sexologist, who plies her with questions about her “gender identity.” After Calliope manages to suppress the fact that she’s been sexually involved with her best friend, Dr. Luce proposes that they make it official: Calliope has been raised as a girl, carries herself like a girl and with a little snip-snip, and a little hormonal gulp-gulp, a girl, though nonmenstruating, non-childbearing, non-orgasm-having, she will be. Some of those caveats perhaps get left out of the conversation with her parents, who are greatly relieved that the problem, whatever it is, can be fixed. As for Calliope, she knows only one thing: “With the unerring instinct of children, I had surmised what my parents wanted from me. They wanted me to stay the way I was. And this was what Dr. Luce now promised.”
“Of bodies chang’d to other shapes I sing,” begins Ovid’s Metamorphoses–and before we speak of Calliope/Cal we should sing of changed Eugenides. For Middlesex, a lengthy family-historical saga that runs from the Greco-Turkish war to Prohibition-era Detroit to the white flight of the 1960s and only culminates in Cal, is not the book anyone expected him to write. His only previous novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993), was a small gem of late postmodernism: It resurrected the mock-epic method of Don DeLillo (who in White Noise sang of the many wiles of supermarket aisles, but had recently grown portentous) for the wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. Chorally narrated by a group of suburban teenage boys, it’s a book filled with something like angst-beauty, as when the boys notice the blooming of their old friend Trip Fontaine:
We weren’t on the lookout for handsomeness appearing in our midst, and believed it counted for little until the girls we knew, along with their mothers, fell in love with Trip…. At first we hardly noticed the wadded notes dropped through the grating of Trip’s locker, nor the equatorial breezes pursuing him down the hall from so much heated blood; but finally, confronted with clusters of clever girls blushing at Trip’s approach, or yanking their braids to keep from smiling too much, we realized that our fathers, brothers and uncles had been lying, and that no one was ever going to love us because of our good grades.
Like most irony, like the irony of Henry James’s later novels, this is an acquired taste–it relies on our knowing first of all that it’s not serious, and then that it is. Although it would take a particularly tin-eared critic not to like that paragraph, not to enjoy the crescendo, such people have been out there, carping, and now one is forced to wonder whether they’ve gotten, like mobsters to a prizefighter, to Eugenides. Certainly a long novel like Middlesex would not be possible in the mock-epic mode; it’s difficult enough to finish DeLillo’s short novels (or The Virgin Suicides, to be honest), encumbered as they are by their own virtuosity. But Middlesex overcorrects. As it moves through three generations of the Stephanides family, the novel turns out, as if in deference to all those pious post-9/11 editorials, to be almost shockingly unironic, with certain sentences born in a spirit of irony or ambiguity clearly doctored into earnestness.