Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

middlesex

It took me a long time to get around to this novel. One reason was that I didn’t want to exhaust the life work of Eugenides too quickly, because no matter how much I love re-reading, and no matter how quickly I forget (meaning that after a few months or years I can read something again almost as I were reading it for the first time), I can only really read something for the first time once, and I wanted to wait for the perfect moment for my first reading of this book.

The other reason for my procrastination was that I looked at this novel somewhat suspiciously. I found its topic and the (literary) opportunities dormant in it intriguing, and generally I would be happy to read even the laundry list of a person who can write such a mesmerizing novel as The Virgin Suicides – still, I had my doubts. One of my several phobias is an inexplicable aversion to family sagas, and this is a saga for sure.

The novel follows the lives and times of an inbred Greek family, and starts off with Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides (who are third cousins and siblings, and also married to each other) leaving for America from Smyrna in 1922, and moving in with a relative. As the years go by, children are born both to them, and to their relative, the lesbian Lina (who has a husband), and the children of the new generation, not being aware of their fragile genetic makeup, follow the century-long tradition of marrying their close relations – to the utmost horror of Desdemona, who – understandably – spends her time worrying when a freak will eventually get born into the family.

The years pass, the first grandchild is born, and after still more years, in 1960, the true main character of the novel is finally born. She’s Calliope Stephanides, a beautiful little girl, who apparently has nothing wrong with her. As Calliope enters puberty, though, she notices more and more weird details on and within herself, until a fateful day reveals that Callie is in fact a boy. (I won’t go into the genetic details – Eugenides does that, and that’s enough.)

The extremely detailed, complicated story is told by the now-adult, 40-something Cal (not Calliope anymore), who’s been living as a man since his teenage years. To give you an idea about the detailed quality of the novel, suffice it to say that a few hundred pages pass before the main character is even born. However, Cal – in the thoroughly enjoyable manner of an ironic-omniscient narrator – knows all there’s to know about his forebears, even things they don’t know about themselves – but when it comes to knowing himself, his knowledge is limited since until the age of 14 he doesn’t know himself for who he is, and even as an adult he constantly struggles with the problem that sometimes he feels like a man, and sometimes like a woman – even if both officially (genetically) and according to his own evaluation he is a man.

The main theme of Middlesex is fantastically interesting. Eugenides examines the eternal questions: what makes a person who he is, and what does our definition of our identity depend on? Is it genetics that defines our identity, is it our upbringing, or something else entirely? And what if there’s a conflict between our genetic identity and the identity that came into being through being brought up one way or another? Can we then freely decide which one to keep? Of course Cal’s case is less than ordinary, consequently, he has a hard time deciding what to call his identity.

I won’t go into details as to why, in the end, he decides at the age of 14, blessed with a man’s genetic makeup and a woman’s identity, that he wants to be a man from that point on – it’s enough to say that the process of choosing (or finding) an identity for himself is deeply human and beautiful – I read with nothing but wonder about the stages of Cal’s journey towards himself. Partly because the journey to the self is always exciting (though of course dangerous), and partly because Eugenides – as usual – writes with such tenderness, poignancy and delicacy that all I can do is sigh and be glad that such beautiful things as his books do exist.

Despite all this, I was a bit disappointed upon first finishing the novel, and I felt as if roughly 500 pages were missing from it. After perusing the elaborately detailed backstory and Cal’s first 14 years of life, I felt as if Eugenides had forgot something: namely, to write about one thing I was extremely interested in: what happened to Cal between the ages of 14 and 41. After a while, though, I realized that of course Eugenides knew what he was doing – because whatever happened to Cal after his decision at the age of 14, that already belonged to his adulthood, and not to the period of defining his identity. And that would be an altogether different story. (A story I’d still be deeply interested to read.)

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The protagonists of the novel are three fresh college graduates who together constitute a strange love-friendship triangle. The plot revolves around their ever-shifting relationships and their difficulties in starting a new life after college is over (or let’s put it simply: the difficulties of growing up). Each of the three main characters has some specific problems of their own. For the clever and romantically inclined Madeleine the main dilemma is whether she should pursue her studies as a graduate student and immerse herself in the oeuvre of her dearly beloved Victorian authors, or she should abandon literature and a scholarly career altogether and devote herself to her boyfriend, Leonard instead, a brilliant boy who suffers in manic depression and is in constant need of a guardian angel, a savior and a nurse. For Leonard himself the problem is of a more serious and more deeply existential nature. Although he is an unbelievably talented and unique thinker, and he comes up with brilliant ideas during his manic periods, his periods of depression get worse and worse, he ends up deeper and deeper in his private hell, finds it more and more difficult to climb out of it, and makes the lives of those around him more and more hellish as well. For him the question is whether he still has any kind of chance to live a more or less normal life, or he should accept his illness and succumb to it. The third main character is Mitchell, a young man prone to mysticism. His dilemma is connected to love and a life devoted to religion. Mitchell has felt a great (unrequited) love for Madeleine since the first year of college and after earning his degree he starts out on a long (both real and spiritual) journey to find out whether faith and religion can help him to heal his wounded heart and finally forget the girl.

Throughout the story we find the motif of the „marriage plot” – which was a characteristic feature of several 19th century English novels. In the English literature of that period there are several examples of stories in which the goal is to lead the heroine through many difficulties to the safe haven of marriage. Of course there can be wrong turns and even dead-end streets on the road there; misunderstandings and insults may occur; and it’s also possible that the heroine is approached by the wrong man first instead of the perfect one – however, the heroine never marries the wrong man, and all misunderstandings can be easily cleared up finally. In The Marriage Plot, however, the marriage plot doesn’t work anymore, and the main characters of this novel are forced to realize that in the 1980s (or in reality, for that matter) not every love story leads inevitably to a marriage, or even if it does there’s no guarantee that the marriage will be a happy and everlasting one.

This realization doesn’t come easily, of course, and Eugenides takes his time leading the reader through the meandering roads which lead the characters there. Each big section of the novel is written from the perspective of a different character, and we slowly get to know their past, their family backgrounds, the events of their lives in the circa one-year period after graduation, and we also learn how they lived through and assessed their relationships with one another. Showing the events from three separate angles also means that we can see how differently the protagonists interpreted the same events.

Despite the fact, by the way, that the main characters are young people with rather average „young people problems” (most of which are not so very serious – let’s be honest: the kind of love Mitchell feels for Madeleine can usually be survived), The Marriage Plot is an „adult” novel in that it doesn’t simplify what is complicated in the protagonists’ life, and it takes the characters seriously – for me it’s a welcome feeling to read such a book.

By the way, Eugenides writes in the same beautiful and melancholy way as he does in the other novel I’ve read by him so far, The Virgin Suicides. Besides the style being fine and subtle, the book is very „literary” as well – for one thing, the characters are forever reading (and what they read and how they react to their readings often has a great influence over their real lives). And the (post)modernized marriage plot theme of the novel is also highly literary and it constantly makes the characters (and the reader) ask themselves the question: is it possible to live life as if it were a Victorian novel?

I won’t write down the answer. All I want to add is that the last „yes” of the novel, which in a true Victorian novel would probably be the answer to the proposal: „Will you marry me?” is uttered in a very different context and it changes the lives of the characters in an altogether different way than a marriage proposal would. And this final „yes” and the conversation leading up to it is such a powerful and uplifting ending that even if all the previous pages were only mediocre I would still say that you should read this novel for the sake of its last page.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

One of my blogger friends mentioned that this novel is narrated in the first person plural and as I happen to be a sucker for novels using interesting narrative techniques and as I have read only one other book so far with a first person plural narrator (Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris) in which the illusion was less than perfect, I definitely wanted to check this book out, just to see whether another writer can write in this way more convincingly than Joshua Ferris. I didn’t really care what this novel was about – but as soon as I started reading it I forgot about the fact that the story is „incidentally” told from a first person plural perspective. Not because Eugenides didn’t manage to write in a convincing fashion this way (he managed much better than Joshua Ferris) – simply because The Virgin Suicides is such a harrowingly beautiful and infinitely melancholy novel that while I was reading it, I simply forgot to think about the ways the author produces the effect he produces. It was enough for me that he did produce this effect. And The Virgin Suicides immediately became one of my all-time favorite teenager-novels, right beside The Catcher in the Rye and M.J. Hyland’s How the Light Gets In.

The story is set in one of white-fenced suburban neighborhoods of the deteriorating industrial city of Detroit. This is where the five Lisbon sisters (their ages ranging from thirteen to seventeen) live in a small house with their strict, religious mother and their helpless, floppy father. The girls are not allowed to go anywhere apart from the school and the church, they are not allowed to go on dates, and they are not allowed to wear make-up – so all their teenage femininity (or, to quote one my favourite novels, Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, the „thick sargasso sea of their femininity”) is crowded together behind the closed doors of their cramped family home. Naturally, the mysterious, unattainable girls move the imagination of all the teenage boys in the neighborhood, however, the boys don’t have the slightest chance to fulfill their dreams about the girls or even to get to know them more closely – partly because of the girls’ forced reclusiveness, and partly because within a one-year period, all five girls commit suicide.

The fact that within one year from the first (unsuccessful) suicide attempt of the youngest girl all the girls end up dead is clear from the very first page of the novel, so I didn’t reveal any vital plot elements here. And even though all the boys, adults, doctors, priests and journalists of the neighborhood are intrigued and deeply troubled by the five suicides, I wouldn’t even say that the main theme of the novel is the characters’ quest to find out why the Lisbon girls killed themselves. This is part of the novel, of course, and several possible reasons are mentioned in the book (family tendency; the slavish imitation of the example of the youngest girl; teenage depression; escapism; selfishness), but I don’t think that this is the gist of the novel.

For me the gist is that the narrators of the story, the boys from the neighborhood who used to fantasize about the Lisbon girls and who are now embittered middle-aged men are unable to forget the girls, even after 30 years. This is why they start out their quest, this is why they interview everyone who had anything to do with the mass suicides, and this is why they frantically collect and organize all the material and „evidence” they have about the girls’ lives. They don’t really hope to achieve anything this way since they are well aware of the fact that even if they managed to collect all the evidence and create a nice, logical story out of them, this wouldn’t change a single thing, because their lives and all their adult relationships had been shaped by the fact that they had known the Lisbon girls in their teenage years: a boy who once had the luck to make love to the single Lisbon girl who didn’t die a virgin would find every other woman only an obedient bed-warmer who just predictably comes screaming in the appropriate moment; and a boy who once had a single lock of his hair pulled to the other side of his forehead by one of the girls would comb his hair that way for the rest of his life.

For these boys the Lisbon girls are the embodiments of every possible male fantasy, every single female virtue and the zeitgeist at the same time, and the demise of the girls seems both the cause and the result of the deterioration of the neighborhood – the decline of the Detroit industry, the death of the trees on the street, and the increasingly shabby condition of the Lisbon family home. It’s impossible to find out whose decline started earlier, but it’s a case in point that the four hundred-day strike of the cemetery workers ends just when the four older Lisbon girls commit suicide, and contrary to all the people who died during the strike and whose corpses had to be stored in deep-freeze, they can be buried directly – as if they had just found their proper place on earth.

And it must be easier for them than for the boys who used to adore them and who stayed teenagers forever in their souls because of them (even though theirs was not such a particularly good teenage period which might have been worth clinging to), and who keep re-visiting their memories just like Holden Caulfield keeps re-visiting the museum where nothing ever changes.