Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Middlesex is a compelling read with memorably distinct and eccentric characters and a rich blend of comedy, pathos, and social commentary. At the same time, however, it seemed hollow to me at the center: what was the thematic principle drawing its various elements together? Though the premise of a narrator who shifts genders is intrinsically interesting, why do that for this particular story about a socially mobile Greek-American family? At first I thought the Greek-Turkish divide of the Smyrna sections was setting up an argument about the arbitrariness of the lines we draw between ourselves and others, but it did not seem to me that this was ultimately how wthe ethnic aspect, or the cultural aspect, of the novel played out. Why have Calliope declare herself “really” a boy, as well, as if reasserting biological determinism instead of exploring the limits of the social construction of gender? why is her desire for women the primary device for asserting her male identity, rather than a way of showing the complications of desire–the potential for sexual identity to challenge or conflict with gender identity? The novel’s writing shifts registers unevenly as well: the extraordinary scenes of the sacking of Smyrna near the beginning, for instance, with the heart-stopping account of the fate of the doctor’s family, turns out to be incongruous in a novel that is much more social comedy despite its other serious elements. So (like White Teeth) Middlesex seemed to me exuberant, brilliant, but intellectually undisciplined, almost as if it could use another round of revisions to give its elements the feeling of necessity that makes a book great rather than a great read. Still, I was impressed enough that I’ve ordered The Virgin Suicides to see what else Eugenides can do.

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