Thursday, November 19, 2009

Stuck in the Middle with You, pt. 1

Right now I'm reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  I'm not even halfway done with it, so this doesn't constitute a review, but it has gotten me thinking about storytelling.  As with The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides goes way out on a limb with his choice of narrator, and, as with The Virgin Suicides, it somehow improbably works.

The first 200+ pages of Middlesex take place before the birth of the narrator, Calliope/Cal, who, we learn almost immediately, is a true hermaphrodite, born apparently female but now living adult life as a man (albeit with ambiguous genitalia).  The first chapter concerns his (I'm going to use male pronouns for the sake of simplicity) conception and birth, but then we backpedal wildly, back to the youth of Cal's grandparents, who were brother and sister, and whose incest resulted in his gender-bending gene.  It's a bizarre move, and actually made me set the book aside the first time I set out to read it: it's sort of like sitting down to watch Transamerica, only to have someone immediately change the channel to My Deeply Disturbing Incestuous Greek Wedding.  It's not that I'm uninterested in Greece or, for that matter, hot brother-on-sister action, but it was completely different than what I expected.

But this time, I found myself fascinated.  The perspective of a narrator who sees every event in his family's history as leading up to his own birth renders the world with a kind of megalomaniacal gloss, especially because, as he sometimes acknowledges but more often ignores, there's no way he could have access to the kind of information he's sharing about the sex lives and secrets of his parents and grandparents.  This is not an unheard-of technique – in fact, Lethem does it from time to time in Chronic City – but doing it to the exclusion of anything else for hundreds of pages creates a really strange effect.  Although we've spent hundreds of pages with this character, we've barely seen him interact with another human being, let alone reveal his character through choices of any consequence.  But, if character is action, then why do we feel we know this guy so well?  Our relationship with this narrator is less like our relationship to a character in fiction, and more like our relationship to an author, who reveals himself slowly through his allusions, vocabulary, and occasional personal asides.

The only comparison to Middlesex I can think of is with the television show "The Wonder Years," which is narrated by an unseen adult voice who repeatedly reminds the viewers that they're watching scenes from his childhood.  That show was decidedly odd, because although the whole world of the episodes was cast in a nostalgic glow, you didn't know the present-day context for the memories; the narrator was both familiar (you knew his voice and the kinds of things he'd say) and unfamiliar (you couldn't picture his face).  But even that isn't as strange as this, because the narrator is still a character in the show – he's just a child.  Middlesex is like a version of "The Wonder Years" directed by Spike Jonze, where the narrative follows the events of Fred Savage's parents' lives as reconstructed in Fred Savage's mind.  Also, there are silkworms.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

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