Tag: 5-Alpha-Reductase Deficiency

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Posted March 30, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Book of the Month, Literary Fiction / 6 Comments

Middlesex by Jeffrey EugenidesTitle: Middlesex (Goodreads)
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Published: Bloomsbury, 2002
Pages: 529
Genres: Literary Fiction
Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

When Jeffrey Eugenides set out to write Middlesex he wanted to “[tell] epic events in the third person and psychosexual events in the first person”. He had decided that the voice “had to render the experience of a teenage girl and an adult man, or an adult male-identified hermaphrodite”. This was no easy task; he had to seek expert advice about intersexuality, sexology, and the formation of gender identity. His motivation came from reading the 1980 memoir Herculine Barbin and being unsatisfied by the lack of detail about intersex anatomy and his emotions.

”I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

If you’ve read Jeffrey Eugenides before you will know he doesn’t just stop at one issue, Middlesex is also loosely based on his life and is used to explore his Greek Heritage. While the book’s main protagonist is Cal Stephanides, Middlesex is a family saga that explores the impact of a mutated gene over three generations. Starting with Cal’s grandparents, the novel looks at their escape from the ongoing Greco-Turkish War and emigrating from Smyrna in Asia Minor to the United States. This section has similar themes to most immigration stories, looking at Greek and US culture in the 1920’s as well as their efforts to assimilate into American society. However this is overshadowed by the fact that Cal’s grandparents are also brother and sister.

Middlesex continues to follow the Stephanides family through the story of Cal’s parents and eventually his life. While the reader gets glimpses of Cal’s life throughout the novel, the last part is where we really explore how the 5-alpha-reductase deficiency (a recessive condition that caused him to be born with female characteristics) impacted his life. While I got the impression that this was the main focus of the novel and to some extent it is, I was expecting to explore the struggle and emotions behind his condition to a greater extent.

Jeffrey Eugenides has a lot going on his novels and you really need to be a literary critic to enjoy Middlesex to the full extent. I love Eugenides because he is too smart for his own good, on a basic level you can enjoy his novels but there is so much going on underneath that rereading is almost essential. Middlesex is a family saga but there are elements of romance, history, coming of age and, because of his Greek heritage, tragicomedy. You could spend hours exploring the hysterical realism and metafictional aspects from this book. For example; does Cal’s condition have any bearing on where he is narrating this novel from? Berlin, a city that also was divided into two (East and West). Also, why does the narrative style switch between first and third person? Some parts of the story are told in first person but Cal would never have been able to recount what happened in that kind of detail. Is this to evoke confusion within the reader, forcing them to just feel a fraction of what Cal must be feeling?

This is an incredibly complex novel and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what Jeffrey Eugenides has done. This is in fact the third of his novels I’ve read and sadly that is all of them for now. While I did enjoy Middlesex I found more joy from The Virgin Suicides (which deals with suicide) and The Marriage Plot (dealing with mental illness). I really appreciate the themes Eugenides explores and the complexities of his novels, but personal opinion is going against the norm here. Middlesex is probably his most recognised novel; it even won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Don’t let the complexity of Middlesex put you off reading this fantastic novel; sure, there is a lot there but it still worth picking up. You can spend as much time as you want exploring its depths but in the end you’ll come away with something. It is a compelling read that will stay with you well after finishing it. This is the perfect type of novel to pick up for a book club.