Jeffrey Eugenides presents a dilemma that most people would find unimaginable and almost impossible to face if it occurred in their lives. Suppose one grows up knowing she is a girl, only to discover one day during her teenage years that the reverse is true, or even worse she is neither a girl nor a boy. It is unthinkable if such an individual discovered s/he is both. The author presents this kind of continual dilemma in this piece where the protagonist struggles to find a precise self-definition, a development that makes life almost unbearable. A universal reasoning in this breath would be that the contextual struggle would make life more bearable for the protagonist and the protagonist himself/herself more lovable and acceptable. Arguably, this is characteristic of any existential drama, as would readily be admitted by most readers especially those that have faced an identity crisis in their life. As such, the piece’s profundity is not contained in the protagonist’s intersex, rather the universality and generalizability of personal struggle to be a normal human who is intelligible and leads a normal life. The reader is taken on a journey of individual struggle in a society characterized by marginalized minorities where power constructs are shaped by the pains and hardships of the oppressed and the entitlements of the majority. Various readers would interpret and react to the book differently, but a point of convergence would be where they would all agree that the author has presented realistic themes. This construction reviews the book and as such evaluates Eugenide’s presentation in various aspects.
First, it must be admitted that the book’s subjectivity is quite rich. From the first person viewpoint of the protagonist, the story comes out as one that sometimes fast-forwards to the future while at times it lingers on events that took place a long time ago. In fact, some took place before the protagonist was born. The story is mainly told in present tense, although at times past tense is employed. The voice narrating the story shifts between that of a grown up and young little innocent girl. By employing this approach, the narrator seems to be enjoying omniscient liberties as regards communicating the feelings and thoughts of many characters in the piece. Thus, the reader is presented with multiple eyewitness accounts and the benefits of not only hindsight but also an array of viewpoints. However, it must not be forgotten that the tale has only one narrator, much as he may be omniscient and arguably unreliable. This may come out as a weakness of the book since a modern reader is likely to be confused as to whether it is Cal speaking or the author himself.
As is the nature of most postmodernist novelists, Eugenide employs an ironical tone here and there, although not of the nature most modern readers are used to. Engaged and emotional, the tone contains an element of urgency. Arguably, the author does well in beautifully balancing the tone with adequate register variation, sense of humor, and a self-irony that seems to shine through the piece. It must be admitted that overall he succeeds in painting a complete and relatively complex yet interesting picture of the ever-interweaving plots. He conveniently employs historical and social commentaries to the effect of arousing in the reader the desire to understand who plays what role in deciding who an individual is and what such an individual may actually become in the modern society.
The book’s style is decorated with meta-commentary and one would readily agree it is not only loquacious but also eloquent and verbose at the same time. It is clear the author does not mind confiding in the reader his self-subjectivity and literary style preference. He writes, “From here on in, everything I'll tell you is colored by the subjective experience of being part of events. Here's where my story splits, divides, undergoes meiosis” (217).
As a pastiche, Middlesex emerges as a representation of contemporary American society. In as much as it is largely a sociological piece, it fits well in other categories like magical realism and family saga. The manner it presents the protagonist’s coming of age also squarely places it in the Bildungsroman bracket. In consideration of various aspects of its central themes, one may easily call it queer, although the critical minds of these days would not hesitate to cast a stone at the author for the piece’s heteronormativity. As concerns intersex and gender identity, the book balances on the protagonist’s desire to be just as normal as the rest of the people, or at least normal to the extent that it is possible for an intersex adult who grew up as a girl only to discover ‘her’ true nature in teenage years. The manner the author brings out Cal’s struggle amid her gender identity makes the reader believe that after all, it is possible for such an individual to be accepted by society. However, this assertion is cast in doubt when one considers the way society harshly categorizes individuals on grounds of their gender identity. The lives of intersex individuals can never be normal because society has no place for them. Such individuals cannot get the chances and opportunities ‘normal’ beings have. The author makes clearer this reality by focusing on the life of Cal from conception and childhood through adolescence and ultimately adulthood.
The various plots and viewpoints through which Eugenides tells the story provides him with a necessary climate to more conveniently address and bring out complex matters like intersex and gender identity. More precisely, the array of stories contained in the novel play an integral role in achieving the creation of the protagonist in different ways. Some stories have been told from a biological perspective, others from a historical perspective, while others have been presented from educational, experiential, and social viewpoints. The author has gone an extra mile to present others from an arguably controversial quasi-scientific viewpoint. Science has been depicted as a significant construct in the society. The belief in truths dictated by science is clear when the narrator says, “I can only explain the scientific mania that overtook my father during that spring of ’59 as a symptom of the belief in progress that was infecting everyone back then” (9). The reader is enlightened of the move by protagonist’s parents to act based on scientific truths. In a way, the author seems to be depicting science to have failed from the very beginning. The novel begins by saying how the protagonist was born a girl, only to discover s/he was more than that as teenager (1). Presentations of popular science seem to take center stage even when Milton and Tessie discuss about the possibility of conceiving a baby girl.
In the beginning of the novel, the author seemingly pits science against culture, instinct, or belief. This he does through the manner he relays the laughable story of the protagonist’s conception. This comes out as one of the most notable ironies of the piece owed to the fact that the protagonist’s parents went to great pains to sire a baby girl but they unfortunately ended up having a child who preferred to live as a boy. They did all they could, even with the aid of science. They were unaware that the recessive gene they were carrying was to carry the day. The moral dilemma of fetal selection and genetics could not come out better in the book.
Indeed, Middlesex is a piece that captures the reader’s attention in a manner most novels fail to do. Eugenides does well in bringing out various themes such as societal constructs on grounds of gender identity and intersex. The piece is excellent and deeply covers themes so wide that exhaustively laying them bare in the limited scope of this review is not possible. Nevertheless, it is believed what has been presented here is adequately informative.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007