Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Stuck in the Middle With You, pt. 2

"'The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot." - EM Forster

Let me say, first off, that Middlesex is beautifully written, and that in it, Eugenides effortlessly creates an unforgettable world.  I loved the descriptions of Detroit, before and after the race riots, and of the futuristic house on Middlesex, "a house that was more like communism, better in theory than reality" with its "long accordion-like barriers, made from sisal, that worked by a pneumatic pump located down in the basement" in the place of traditional doors.  The Zebra Room restaurant and the hot dog stands and even the girl's bathroom in Callie's school are rendered with such care and specificity that it's almost impossible to believe they don't exist.  And even individual scenes -- like the burning of the restaurant, or Callie and the Obscure Object's sleepovers -- come gorgeously, luminously, to life.  But, for me at least, the whole of this book doesn't hang together.  It is a story, in the sense that one event follows another in rapid succession, but it isn't a plot: the events bear no more relation to one another than fireworks shot off one after the other do.

After finishing the novel, I found this article from the New York Review of Books, which captured part of what I struggled with in it.  Mendelsohn writes, "There's no way to prove it, but I have a feeling that Middlesex began its life as two novels: a Greek immigrant story, based to whatever extent (one hopes not too great) on the author's family history; and a novel about the alluring subject of bimorphic sexuality (based, perhaps, on the sensational case, much publicized a few years ago, of a Midwestern girl who turned out, like Callie, to be genetically male)... But the graft didn't take...  There's no reason, whether in theme or meaning, that this hermaphrodite should be Greek, except that Eugenides makes her Greek, because he has a Greek story to tell as well as a hermaphrodite's story." 

I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment.  Although, as I mentioned before, we spend the first 200+ pages of the novel with Cal's parents and grandparents, the only link between their stories and his appears to be genetic.  Though we're introduced to Cal through the lens of his family, his relationships with them are sketched in at best, nowhere near the emotional center of the book.  An almost cartoonish example of this can be found on page 521, when, after literally hundreds of pages with no mention of the family matriarch, Cal writes, "Patient reader, you may have been wondering what happened to my grandmother.  You may have noticed that, shortly after she climbed into bed forever, Desdemona began to fade away.  But that was intentional.  I allowed Desdemona to slip out of my narrative because, to be honest, in the dramatic years of my transformation, she slipped out of my attention most of the time."  I'm glad Cal/Eugenides points out that this was intentional, because if he didn't, I might have thought it was really fucking sloppy.  Fortunately, he has a good reason for dropping this central character from the narrative, even after spending chapter upon chapter on her love life and struggles in the New World: she slipped his mind.  Nice save.

But it isn't just the schism between the Greek and hermaphrodite parts of the novel that bothers me.  It's the schism between every single one of the book's many set pieces.  For one example, Eugenides creates a character, Maxine Grossinger, for the sole purpose of having her die of an aneurysm, in order to throw Cal and his crush into one another's arms; Maxine's life and death are inconsequential compared to the resulting embrace, and the event is never returned to in any significant way: she's just gone.  The focus then shifts to the relationship between Cal and "the Obscure Object," whose love for each other blossoms despite the stigma of what they believe to be their lesbianism.  OK, so surely this thread won't completely drop out of the novel without explanation, right?  Wrong again.  After Cal gets hit by a car and rushed to the hospital, where the doctors discover his hermaphodism, one might expect to learn the consequences of this jarring news for the fledging love affair.  Maybe the Object will be relieved.  Maybe she will be disappointed, or scared, or angry.  What's her reaction?  We never know, because she never appears again in the novel.  The last time we see her is before Cal even finds out what he is: "I lifted my head from the stretcher to gaze at the Object... For once more she was becoming a mystery to me.  What ever happened to her?  Where is she now?" 

Good questions, all.  A quick phone call could probably answer most of them, but that's not something Cal ever considers doing.  I guess long distance was more expensive in those days.

Cal's father's death, probably the low point of the novel, also happens in a void: in a needlessly complicated sequence, a minor character convinces Cal's father that someone is holding runaway Cal for ransom.  He delivers the money, but in the ensuing high-speed chase, his car goes off a bridge and he dies.  One might expect some significant emotional consequences for Cal, especially since this death could have been prevented if Cal hadn't run away, or if he had just gotten back in touch with his family to let them know he was all right. 

But instead, his reaction is this: "Most important, Milton [Cal's father] got out without ever seeing me again.  That would not have been easy.  I like to think my father's love for me was strong enough that he could have accepted me.  But in some ways it's better that we never had to work that out, he and I.  With respect to my father, I will always remain a girl.  There's a kind of purity in that, the purity of childhood."  Huh?  That's basically the same logic as, "Mom and Dad, I'm gay.  And now that I've told you, I'm going to have to kill you."  Cal's supposed to be a hermaphrodite, not a sociopath – how could such a major emotional event be resolved for him as some kind of brow-wiping happy coincidence, all in a single paragraph?

In the climatic scene when Cal's hermaphrodism is revealed, Eugenides writes, "Chekhov was right. If there's a gun on the wall, it's got to go off.  In real life, however, you never know where the gun is hanging.  The gun my father kept under his pillow never fired a shot.  The rifle over the Object's mantle never did either.  But in the emergency room things were different... my body had lived up to its narrative requirements."  But whose narrative requirements are those?  Certainly not mine.  For me, it's not enough for a character to lose his virginity, or die violently, or lose a fortune, or turn out to have X-Y chromosomes.  If those things happen, they still have to matter: they have to have consequences, they have to come back.  When they don't, we're left stuck in the middle of nowhere.


Virginia said...

Fascinating analysis -- you are making me rethink this whole book. I absolutely agree that it started as two novels that never quite gel into a whole. For the rest, I am going to have to reread and come back with more opinions!

The Chawmonger said...

Yes, Middlesex is such a weird book -- I've only read it once too, so there may be subtleties I missed. But I did think that the plot decisions he made in the second half of the book were often downright bizarre. It's particularly surprising to me, since the plot of The Virgin Suicides was one of its great strengths.

Anyway, thanks so much for commenting, and please do come back with more opinions!