Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Gore Vidal once joked that the advantage of bisexuality was that it doubled your chances of a date on a Saturday night. By extension, hermaphrodites could be said to have the third option of a good night in on their own. But in this epic novel narrated by an American born with twin-set genitals, Jeffrey Eugenides silences such cheap jokes with a rich comedy of his own.

Because the condition the writer calls "middlesex" is caused by a recessive gene (one usually negated by the other parent's DNA), it tends to appear only once in several generations. The same was beginning to seem regrettably true of books by Eugenides.

This second novel follows almost a decade after his astonishing debut, The Virgin Suicides, in which five daughters from a very correct American family take their own lives in succession. Intriguingly, the only equally praised book-rookie of the same period - Donna Tartt, with The Secret History - has also waited until late this year to get to second base. In American letters, the theme of this fall is the attempt to fulfil high promise.

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Those Greeks and their hermaphrodites! Teiresias, the seer who futilely haunts so many Greek tragedies, was one. Having enjoyed the special privilege of living as both a male and a female, he was asked by the gods to settle an argument about which of the two sexes had more pleasure from lovemaking; on asserting that the female did, he was struck blind by prudish Hera—but given the gift of prophecy by Zeus as a compensation. The minor deity Hermaphroditus, of course, was another, appearing in religion (there is evidence of dedications to the god as early as the third century BC in Attica), in literature (Ovid, in the fourth book of Metamorphoses, elaborates the mythic narrative in which this son of Hermes and Aphrodite was joined in one body with the nymph Salmacis), and in art, where the opportunities for imaginative representations of this strange creature proved irresistible, predictably enough, to Hellenistic sculptors, with their penchant for the extreme. The most famous of these sculpted hermaphrodites is a Greek one from about 150 BC, which survives in Roman copies such as the one to be found in the “Hermaphrodite Room” in the Uffizi. At first glance, the figure seems to be that of a sleeping woman. She lies face down, and is quite voluptuous: her breasts, pressed against the couch on which she reclines, are full, as are her hips. Her hair is carefully, fashionably coiffed. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary female. For there, peeking out of the voluminous folds of her gown, is a penis, as modest and perfectly formed as any of the unassuming members familiar from countless classical nudes. Male nudes, that is.

To this catalog we may now add another Greek, Calliope Stephanides, the heroine—and later the hero (“Cal”)—of Jeffrey Eugenides’s second novel, which is slyly entitled Middlesex. (The title ostensibly refers to the name of the street in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where much of the novel is set.) For adorable little Callie turns out, by the novel’s end, to be a boy—one who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes a type of male pseudo-hermaphroditism: although chromosomally male (she has both an X and a Y), she has no real penis, but instead a kind of extended clitoris which she will refer to as “the crocus”; she has testes, but they remain undescended. As a result of this she is misidentified at birth as being a girl and is raised as a girl by her amusingly neurotic, upper-middle-class Greek-American parents. Until puberty, that is, when her male hormones kick in and it becomes increasingly evident that she is no ordinary female. (For one thing, she doesn’t menstruate, although she tries mightily to fake it: “I did cramps the way Meryl Streep does accents.”) It is only after a road accident lands her in an emergency room that Callie and her bewildered family realize how extraordinary she really is. Middlesex, then, is a Bildungsroman with a rather big twist: the Bildung it describes turns out to be the wrong one—a false start.

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EVEN before she's born, Calliope Stephanides's gender is up for debate. Her parents, Milton and Tessie Stephanides of Detroit, want a girl, and a bachelor uncle convinces Milton, ostensibly on the authority of an article in Scientific American magazine, that if the couple have ''sexual congress'' 24 hours prior to ovulation ''the swift male sperm would rush in and die off. The female sperm, sluggish but more reliable, would arrive just as the egg dropped.'' Tessie complies, despite her worries that ''to tamper with something as mysterious and miraculous as the birth of a child was an act of hubris.'' Once Tessie is pregnant, Milton's mother, Desdemona -- a refugee with her husband, Lefty, from a Greek village on the slopes of Mount Olympus -- dangles a silver spoon tied to a string over the belly of her daughter-in-law and pronounces the child a boy. Her son storms in to protest the divination; the baby is a girl, he insists. ''It's science, Ma.''

They're both right, after a fashion. Callie will spend the 1960's and early 70's, the first years of her life, as the relatively unremarkable daughter of an entrepreneurial Greek-American family, only to discover at 14, in the office of a Manhattan physician, that she is a hermaphrodite -- or, more precisely, a pseudohermaphrodite, a sufferer of 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. ''To the extent that fetal hormones affect brain chemistry and histology, I've got a male brain,'' explains Cal, the man Callie decides to become after she learns the truth and the narrator of ''Middlesex,'' Jeffrey Eugenides's expansive and radiantly generous second novel. ''But I was raised as a girl.''

Eugenides's first novel, ''The Virgin Suicides'' (1993), was a dreamy, slender book about the gulf in understanding between the adolescent boys in a Michigan suburb and the five daughters of a strict Roman Catholic couple living in their neighborhood. The boys fill that gulf with romantic obsession, a beast that thrives in a vacuum, and the girls, stricken with a fatal loneliness, die by their own hands like a bevy of unlucky fairy tale princesses. ''Middlesex'' may be an entirely different sort of book -- it's longer, more discursive and funnier, for a start -- but it's equally preoccupied with rifts. There's the gap between male and female, obviously, but also between Greek and WASP, black and white, the old world and the new, the silver spoon and the sluggish sperm. Finally, there is the tug of war between destiny and free will -- an age-old concern of Greek storytellers, as every college freshman learns, reborn in the theories advanced by evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology, at least in its popular incarnation -- which seems to get more popular every day -- keeps chipping away at the garden-variety humanism espoused by most novelists. That's why it's surprising so few of them (at least within the genre of literary fiction) have bothered to take notice of it. Viewed through a sociobiological lens, infidelity, the novel's favorite meat, is transformed from the stuff of betrayal and moral failing to the mere playing out of a Darwinian reproductive imperative; despair springs from an inherited defect in the regulation of neurochemicals, not from an existential apprehension of the absurdity of the human condition. The tangled parks and gardens that have long been the novelist's stamping grounds are being bulldozed to make way for sleek, sterile industrial complexes where, in cataloging each molecule in the human genome, scientists may ultimately be able to tell us which gene caused Anna Karenina to cheat and gave Oliver Twist the nerve to ask for more gruel.

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