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'Middlesex: A Novel' by Jeffrey Eugenides

'Middlesex' plumbs depth of displacement

Sunday, September 29, 2002

By John Freeman

A clever double entendre lurks in the title of Jeffrey Eugenides' fantastic second novel. The book's narrator, Cal Stephanides, is a hermaphrodite, raised as a girl but now living as a man.

 
 
"Middlesex: A Novel"

By Jeffrey Eugenides.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

$27.50.

   
 

Middlesex also refers to the leafy street in Grosse Pointe, Mich., where Cal's family of Greek emigres wound up living as outsiders among Detroit's lily-white upper crust in the early 1970s.

For more than 500 pages, the novel traces the Stephanides' journey to this posh suburban outpost, revealing how sexual and cultural displacement recur throughout history, culminating in the birth of Cal.

"To go forward you have to come back where you began," Cal says wistfully at his tale's beginning. And so this yarn begins in 1922, the year a brother and sister -- Cal's grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona -- fell desperately into a forbidden love affair.

That same year the Turks invaded Asia Minor, forcing Lefty and Desdemona to flee to America, and then Detroit, where they hid the circumstances of their incestuous marriage.

Identity, as it turns out, was not all they had to change. They retooled their skills, suffered through the Depression, raised kids and watched them become more American then they.

Their only son -- Cal's father, Milton -- marries his cousin, fights in World War II, and returns home to become the millionaire owner of hot dog stand chain named "Hercules" in honor of his Greek roots.

Narrating this rags-to-riches story from the present day, Cal ferries his grandparents -- and then his parents' -- story along at an old-fashioned pace, savoring each detail with tender nostalgia.

Although Cal's many Proustian moments pad out this story -- this novel is triple the length of Eugenides' first, "The Virgin Suicides" (1993) -- they're worth it.

Recalling his father's car, for example, Cal tells us Milton's "Cadillac was as plushly carpeted and softly lit as the bar at the Ritz. ... The interior itself was black leather and gave off a strong new smell. It was like climbing into somebody's wallet."

Money, Eugenides elegantly shows, can be the ultimate vehicle of deracination, and Cal is proof of that. Raised as "Calliope," the daughter of privilege, he attended a girl's school in clogs and Izod shirts.

By the time Cal reached his teens, his heritage could be guessed at only by hearing him speak.

"There were signs only a linguist could pick up," he writes, "middle-class elisions, grace notes passed down from Greek into Midwestern twang."

Like his ethnicity, Cal's sexuality fell dormant for a long time, too, and Eugenides doesn't fully tease this out in the book's final hundred pages. It ought to seem like a disappointment that we don't arrive at Cal's story proper until the book is almost over, and that Eugenides rushes us headlong through Cal's painful discovery.

In the end, however, Eugenides does such a superb job of capturing the ironies and trade-offs of assimilation that Calliope's evolution into Cal doesn't feel sudden at all, but more like a transformation we've been through ourselves.

John Freeman is a free-lance writer in New York.

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