As with all the best books, or at least the ones that make for the best discussions, feelings were very much mixed about Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. Those in attendance were split pretty evenly- 3 for very much yes, 3 not so much, and 1 undecided. We were universally disturbed by how quickly Desdemonda and Lefty, brother and sister, in 1922 decided that they’d get married. Obviously this is the Big Bang moment of the whole story, and everyone’s lives are subsequently affected by this decision- but we all agreed that they were both far too up for it far too quickly. Just no. When your Husband is your brother and it looks like your son is about to propose to his cousin, one needs to intervene. More grandparents are necessary in a family.
Firstly we talked about the narrator, Cal, and their omnipotence- the way they could confidently and with detail tell a story in 1922, 60 years before their birth, how they could definitely impart the thoughts and feelings of characters they were nowhere near, divine reasons for behaviour known only to the person involved. We discussed why this could be off putting, even annoying, and on the other hand why it might separate Middlesex from other multi-generational family sagas that we’ve read. We also talked about the narrator’s Dickensian, flowery language and their choice to address the reader directly, float up and down stairs and point out that this is what they are doing. Also could be considered annoying.
One of the most consistently voiced and agreed upon faults was the book’s odd pacing. Cal spends literally hundreds of pages building his backstory, then undergoes the transformation from Callie to Cal in about a page. The book from that point- San Francisco, the Father Mike debacle, the tying up at the end- seems very rushed for such a lengthy, epic narrative. Even those of us that loved it could not deny that this is kind of the case. The transformation itself we discussed briefly, and it was raised by one member that there was a concern that the intersex/trans experience might not really do justice to such an experience and that it wasn’t handled particularly sensitively- the San Francisco section in particular felt a bit box-ticky “This is the exploitation bit, this is the bit where they’re beaten up in the park” etc. The idea of the intersex experience was barely discussed in any depth- but then Cal does make it clear that he isn’t very involved with the movement and tends to keep away from the whole thing. We had all expected gender identity and intersexuality to be a more fundamental part of the story. We all liked how Cal, as adult Cal, could look back on their life as Callie without any anger or disgust or bitterness. Callie was kind of allowed to live on in memory and was recalled quite fondly by Cal. He allowed Callie to sort of exist in her own time and context, which we all thought was a nice touch.
We talked about Eugenides’ prose and about the bits that really worked that the reader could see came from personal experience- for example, he’s from a partially Greek background, so the big, busy Orthodox Greek family and the 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant element was really believable and immersive. We felt that the city of Detroit was rendered really well (despite the not particularly involving riots), as Eugenides hails from Detroit himself. However, the parts that he obviously had no personal experiences with really stood out as being a bit out of his depth. Namely the intersex experience, which felt a bit haphazard and his borderline hilarious depictions of menstruation, or anxiety about unforthcoming menstruation. It’s not exactly uncommon though- male writers just can’t do periods properly and it’s perhaps unsurprising.
We briefly talked about the very indistinct sexual encounters that Callie has with the Object and the Object’s brother, neither of which seemed particularly consensual. Like many of the book’s other themes, it was very ambiguous.
One of the aspects of the novel that was considered universally effective was the author’s use of duality as a theme throughout the book, demonstrated in a number of ways. Most of the characters experience displacement and duality at some point- Cal/Callie belongs within neither gender. They are neither one thing nor the other. Lefty and Desdemonda aren’t wholly husband and wife, nor are they brother and sister any longer. Ancestrally Greek, born in a part of Turkey contested fro centuries by both nations, the Stephanides family is not wholly Greek, nor are they Turkish. The whole immigrant experience is shrouded in Duality- first generation immigrants rarely feel fully at home in their adopted nations, but neither can they remain completely loyal to their old world. 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants belong to their home nations more successfully, but are obliged to feel the tether of the ancestral home. Sourmelina lives a dual life as a wife and mother, and as a closeted lesbian. Middlesex is a novel full of duality, and we all agreed that this was done particularly well throughout. One member suggested that it’s more realistic for a person to be composed of contradictions, to be fluid and changeable that it is to be the same, unfaltering person day after day, using the disastrous Father Make and his permanent niceness and geniality as an example. He was definitely the worst character.
It was mentioned that the book was very dense, the characters and the themes sort of fighting for space with too much going on. Some readers wanted more time spent on Milton and Tessie’s courtship (cousins, uh-oh) which seemed to jump from having a clarinet played on her to marriage. One member mentioned also that for a book about family and relationships, it was lacking in feeling and actual emotion, perhaps because of the over ambitious timescale or the disjointed structure.
I think there were elements of this novel that impressed everyone (not always the same ones) and elements that frustrated. Though opinions were mixed, we mostly liked Cal as a character and the dense, tangent ridden, meandering Greek epic of his family narrative. Though in places it was missing details, and in places embellished with far too much- though we were occasionally frustrated by his style or his insight, Cal wasn’t the worst storyteller. Though some readers will not be rushing to pick up JE’s other books, Middlesex (despite it's bad punny title) made for an interesting discussion about structure, family, gender, consent, duality, identity and, unavoidably, the very Classical Greek ingredient of incest.
We took the opportunity to select the next four titles which will take us up to the end of 2016(!) and have gone for a nice mixture of sci-fi, war, historical fiction, YA fantasy and book club classics.
Just in case the picture won't load, they are;
September- Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut (given a C grade by its own author)
October- All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Pulitzer winning)
November- Half A Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Orange Prize winner of winners)
December/January- His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman (Whitbread, Carnegie and Guardian Prize Winning)
The latter of which is the only series that has ever come close to dethroning Harry Potter as my most beloved series of all time. Can't wait.
We will be meeting on Thursday September 29th at 7.00pm to discuss Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut