Sense and Sexibility

Sense and Sexibility

In 1967 the world-renowned if somewhat Dickensianly named sexologist John Money was offered a case he couldn’t refuse.

Facebook
Twitter
Email
Flipboard
Pocket

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.

Take the commentary on the urban riots of 1967. For years the Stephanides family has run a Greek diner whose fortunes decline alongside Detroit’s. During the riots the diner is burned to the ground; it is, we happen to know, very heavily insured, and in the odd way of readers who favor massive income redistribution but want fictional characters to grow rich, we are relieved. And here is how Calliope leads off the next chapter: “Shameful as it is to say, the riots were the best thing that ever happened to us.” The shame goes without saying–why say it? There is an awful lot of this sort of elementary exposition, especially in the book’s first half, and it accompanies the often potted characterizations. Calliope’s English teacher, for example, is missing out on life because he reads too much: “Instead of eating his lunch, he told you what Oblonsky and Levin had for lunch in Anna Karenina. Or, describing a sunset from Daniel Deronda, he failed to notice the one that was presently falling over Michigan.” Donald Barthelme died for this?

Back in The Virgin Suicides, realists had been figures of fun, the narrators apologizing for misremembering the name of a tree because “none of us has a botany handbook handy, so popular with rangers and realists.” Realists were men with flashlights, wandering through forests in rubber boots. Now as Eugenides interrupts his most clever observations (the tank rolling down their street toward the riot stops briefly at an intersection: “The gun turret looked both ways, like a driver’s ed student, and then the tank went on its way”) to make some embarrassingly banal sociological generalization (“To live in America, until recently, meant to be far from war”), it’s as if, having decided to join the rangers, he must hug a tree in every paragraph.

Eugenides’ metamorphosis is not unprecedented. Though Dale Peck recently flung his entire vocabulary at high modernism and its postmodern heirs–Ulysses (“diarrheic flow”), Nabokov (“sterile”), DeLillo (“stupid”)–most people have received the bulletin, in the form of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, that postmodernism (so called) is no longer what the cool kids are up to. Eugenides follows Franzen by a year in rejecting its methods, though with notable differences. Franzen was awkward in postmodern garb and became, the moment he shed it, a great deal more entertaining–The Corrections is above all an extremely funny book.

Eugenides, on the contrary, thrived in the DeLillo mode; he has managed here a pretty good realist novel, but he has stepped on the throat of his own song. The first half of Middlesex moves at a geological pace, as layer after layer of detail is deposited in our minds. The original Stephanides grandparents (who married despite being brother and sister) escape from the Turkish destruction of Smyrna, about which we learn a thing or two, and move to Detroit, so we learn about that, and find work at the Ford factory, and so on. The canvas is bright enough, and not all of merely antiquarian interest–what we get of history is only what the Stephanides family sees. And it works both ways: As if history were a searchlight, characters are illuminated primarily when they cross its beam. The big postmodern novel had spun out meanings and plots indefinitely; though still in baggy monster territory, Eugenides runs a comparatively tight fictional universe, and even when hometown pride gets the best of him and he includes a section on the Nation of Islam (founded in Detroit!), he contrives to involve the Stephanides clan. As in Sophocles, Dickens or Return of the Jedi, in which everyone is always turning out to be…your father!, incest in Middlesex is a device for handling plot. In this case the original Stephanides sin (it was a small village) leads to the replication of a rare chromosomal defect and the birth two generations later of Cal Stephanides, with his complicated genitalia.

“It is popularly believed,” writes Freud, “that a human being is either a man or a woman. Science, however, knows of cases in which the sexual characters are obscured.” He sounds like Melville writing to Hawthorne: “Leviathan is not the biggest fish.–I have heard of Krakens.”

Hermaphrodites have always symbolized something to someone. Even Foucault, whose edition of the memoirs of a nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite Eugenides has credited with inspiring Middlesex, glimpsed in that story, in an unusually cheerful moment, a liberating form of sexual desire. But what does Calliope’s intersexuality represent to Eugenides? This is difficult to say. Though the novel will likely do its part to raise awareness of sexual reassignment, the particular violence of that act is absent from Middlesex. Compared with any of the memoir literature produced by intersexed writers over the past ten years, or with Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, likewise a family-historical novel about American urban decay and teenage rebellion, Middlesex is oddly becalmed.

Eugenides’ reticence on this score can be read generously: Again as in the classic tragedies, the violence remains offstage, or, in this case, off-book, in other books. But there is another way to take it, too. A few years ago the most programmatic among Eugenides’ generation of writers, David Foster Wallace, published an essay on John Updike in which he took Updike, Roth and the other “phallocrats” to task for their worship of the penis. Like the Modernist neofascists, our major postwar men are not particularly defensible in this regard, and someone will eventually have to explain the historico-literary forces that created–in the wake of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer and Molly Bloom–Herzog, Portnoy, Rabbit and Norman Mailer. This is, in any case, the breach into which Eugenides inserts his Cal, and it is with this in mind that we can understand the significance Cal has for him: The hermaphrodite, even a pseudohermaphrodite, symbolizes a return by proxy of the omniscient narrator, capable of inhabiting all ages and sexes. In what is probably the book’s central scene, Calliope and her best friend (known only as “the Obscure Object”) find themselves drinking in a cabin in the woods with the Object’s older brother, Jerome, and his sinister friend, Rex Reese. Soon Jerome is atop an indifferent Calliope, and Rex similarly astride a willing Object. Occasionally parrying Jerome’s advances, Calliope directs her attention across the room:

With consummate skill [Rex] had undone the Object’s brassiere with one hand. Because he was more experienced than me I let him deal with the shirt buttons, but it was my hands that took hold of her bra and, as if snapping up a windowshade, let into the room the pale light of the Object’s breasts. I saw them; I touched them; and since it wasn’t me who did this but Rex Reese I didn’t have to feel guilty, didn’t have to ask myself if I was having unnatural desires.

It’s a lovely scene, and the novelistic use of an intersexed narrator is made powerfully clear–from here on out all narrators should be intersexed. In this way, finally, with this accumulation of knowledge, Middlesex delivers the rewards for which the realist novel was invented. Because we know them so well we come to care about the characters, and when something happens to them we are sad; the ending to this book is very moving. Confronted with Dr. Luce’s vision of her future, Calliope declares herself (thus do star athletes pledge themselves to colleges) Cal, and runs away. The final eighty pages are exceedingly fine, as Eugenides at last allows his prose to reach for the higher notes. Cal’s parents, Milton and Tessie, search and search and wait by the phone. “Their agony was harmonious,” Cal tells us.

During the months I was missing, Milton and Tessie experienced the same spikes of panic, the same mad hopes, the same sleeplessness. It had been years since their emotional life had been so in sync and this had the result of bringing back the times when they first fell in love.

It’s the same expository mode as earlier in the book, but now effective, now the beneficiary of serious narrative momentum. The parents begin to make love again, all over the house, and Cal, who has never really made love, describes it:

The only place they didn’t use was the basement because there was no telephone there. Their lovemaking was not passionate but slow and elegiac, carried out to the magisterial rhythms of suffering. They were not young anymore; their bodies were no longer beautiful. Tessie sometimes wept afterward. Milton kept his eyes squeezed shut. Their exertions resulted in no flowering of sensation, no release, or only seldom.

This is good, but it’s also a little strange: Would this really be how one described the primal scene, one’s parents having sex? It’s too aestheticized, too much like other people’s parents, without the revulsion, the odor of death, and this may be at the heart of Middlesex‘s problem. I take the central argument of this book, from the destruction of Smyrna through the destruction of Detroit and into the steady assimilation of the Greek immigrants into American culture and finally Dr. Luce’s simple, horrible plan, to be a protest against the elimination of various forms of experience. But Cal himself does not really choose to embrace his experience, to become, as he might have, a hermaphrodite hero. He is not both man and woman, “throbbing,” like Eliot’s Tiresias, “between two lives.” He is the absence of either, though with excellent taste in clothes.

There are advantages to such neutrality: By skirting politics, Eugenides has written what may prove to be a politically effective book. It can be read in schools, discussed in parlors–if only Oprah’s Book Club were living at this hour. But too much energy is expended here, as in Wallace and even more so in his less talented imitators, on the assurance of the author’s good intentions. The result is often a measured, highly adequate bloodlessness. Calliope as a girl is funny and awkward; the adult Cal as a guy is just pleasant and boring. He cannot do in fifteen pages on Ford what Céline did seventy years ago in one sentence: “The next day I took the train to Detroit, where, I’d been assured, it was easy to get hired and there were lots of little jobs that were well paid and didn’t take too much out of you.” Ha!

“I don’t want to overestimate the sexual,” Cal tells us late in the book, and this is reasonable, given the excesses of the previous generation of writers. But the novel is no country for reasonable men, and Middlesex often ends up reading like a compromise between divergent viewpoints, a move toward a sort of consensus novel, which, like the consensus historiography of the 1950s, would mute the fragmentation and bitterness of American society. And of American literature–Wallace denounces Updike, to be sure, but Wallace’s real literary fathers, DeLillo and William Gaddis, escape unscathed. In the meantime the younger generation follows suit: One popular young novelist has recently been pursuing a project wherein he writes to older novelists and solicits their next piece of paper. (Young writers should write to older ones solely to denounce them, whereas this is a bit like asking for their next piece of toilet paper.) The proof, in any case, is in the narrating, and Cal fails the test. If his lack of personality is deliberate–for Ovid’s original Hermaphroditus does speak in a voice “but half his own,” and Cal has been a sexual recluse since opting for boyhood in 1974–it’s a bad idea. With its heart so clearly in the right place, its taste and intelligence so handsome, Middlesex is a book that’s almost impossible to dislike even as you’re bored by it; but if sexless, bloodless, realist Cal is the alternative it proposes, I’m with the phallocrats. Eugenides comes out against sexual reassignment, perhaps, but it would never even occur to a reader of D.H. Lawrence to lop off a sexual organ, no matter how strange.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.

Onwards,

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy
x