I'm one of those people who always reads a bunch of books at the same time. A little while ago, I finished reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I came to the book in a very simple way, but came to the author in a bit of a roundabout path.
Turning From Small Worlds
Eugenides is typically lumped in with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen – sensitive white male chroniclers of the angst and narratives of the suburban American culture heading for an existential crisis through the 1990s and early 2000s.
They were the most prominent writers in a clique of American authors that were called a coherent cohort in New York Magazine in 2011, their society and wider meaning unified by in how their culture made sense of Wallace’s suicide a few years earlier.
Eugenides never had much meaning to me when I first discovered these writers. I bought Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest practically by impulse in a mall bookstore when I was 16.
When I first read it, I was overwhelmed, bowled over by the massive scope of his literary creation, which was wedded to a narrow focus on his characters’ deep, personal, singular pain. I’d later think of Wallace as prefiguring the drive to sincerity. That cultural drive jacked up seriously after Sept 11, as the ironic reflexes of late 20th century popular culture* weren’t adequate to process America’s intense societal trauma.
* Key example: the cool, smirking, distance of authors like Thomas Pynchon from the interiors of his characters, the postmodern focus on technical and formal experimentation, characters as plays of tropes and pure ideas instead of personalities.
I grew tired over the last decade of both postmodern experimentation and the insular interiority of the Wallace-influenced approach. The deal on Wallace was sealed when I read D. T. Max’s biography of him last year – Wallace spent his life tortured by mental illness, frequently unable to escape his own head and most often a mess.
His characters fell into such deep and detailed pits of interiority in their depression because that was the arc that kept repeating in Wallace’s own life. His research on settings would be comprehensive. I was especially impressed by how much he learned about tax accountancy for The Pale King, but the story was always the same. A subject's fall into their own sadness. Usually never to emerge.
|Eugenides has become my favourite of that cohort of
white novelists of the midwestern suburban
American subjective interior. He breaks their
I felt the same about Franzen's work, except on a social level. Wallace and Franzen had convinced me that this crew of writers couldn’t escape their heads and their own, socially isolated worlds. The precious interiority of the middle and upper class white American male of the mid-sized town.
Writing Difference – Imagination at Last!
That article I linked earlier, describing Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot as an adaptation of the sick relationship Wallace developed with Mary Karr, made me think he was little different than the others. But with a little reflection, I thought differently.
I remembered The Virgin Suicides. Not the book itself, which I still haven’t read, but the film. I often thought of it primarily as a Sofia Coppola film – her personality was all over the film. But so much of Eugenides’ narrative voice survived her adaptation. Literally, in the film's narration.
That voice expressed a mind that sought to understand difference. The Virgin Suicides could sound like a journey that never leaves a skull at first sight, because it remains the voice of the boys who followed the Lisbon girls. Boys who follow girls. Say it, and you can hear how easily it can fall into the unseemly.
Yet the voice in that film preserved the love that always disappeared from the true solipsists. Wallace’s writing never escaped the black pits, though he depicted the abyss brilliantly. Whenever I try to read Franzen, I have to stop for the choking odour of mothballs. Eugenides seemed different.
The Virgin Suicides was an attempt to narrate the radically different from the outside. That little boys’ choir narrator wanted to explore this world that was so close to their own, but diverged so radically.
The steel oppression of social conservatism, even for such a basic, insular neighbourhood society as theirs – and the silent howls of pain as they clawed into a familial coffin – the desperation of the realization that an actual coffin is the only escape.
|A story of the relentless drive of love to uncover an alien neighbour.
The film is a masterpiece you can never watch twice, its violent
sadness overcomes your guts.
The entire narrative was an exercise in the refusal to understand what’s different from you on your own terms. The beginning of the ethical imagination that I know now is the purpose of art. If that was Eugenides’ first novel, then how far would he go afterward?
Thousands of Stories in Each of Us
So one day, I saw Middlesex on sale for $1 at a United Way fundraiser table at my local liquor store. The story and its narrator intrigued me – a young girl grows up in 1960s and becomes a man after realizing that she’s intersex with interior testes. And it also flowed through the story of hir grandparents fleeing war in Greek Turkey to settle in Detroit.
After I bought the book, I looked through reviews. Some of the negative reviews thought that a novel was too unwieldy to contain a Greek immigrant story and an intersex awakening story at the same time.
But that overstuffed excess of narrative was a selling point for me – real life is always intersectional. Every actual person has multiple heritages and stories within them. I look among my own old and new friends in Toronto for examples.
A young artist leaves the “new world” for the country of his parents’ birth and sees it undergoing a renaissance, while he also works through the complex heritage of a deceased parent and another whose work sometimes exposes him to the poorest of the poor.
|In the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari
write that they wrote the book together and each of them were several
people themselves already. It made their room very crowded. Each of
us is just as crowded as they were.
A woman climbs out of poverty while also growing distant from her earlier religious awakening thanks to hypocrisies in the community, grows alienated from family, and lives through the tension of her own trauma and the mental health issues of her partner.
A man finds financial success and builds a new multicultural family while living the precarious neighbourhoods of a gentrifying city.
A man leaves a dictatorship for a democracy, where he finds love. Only a few years later, he finds himself at the forefront of activism to democratize his old country and bring victims of war to safe shores.
All these overflow the simple narratives that a straightforward literary treatment would make of them. That’s life. It’s what art should depict – the beautiful excess and diversity of human life on its own terms.
Desire Creates Us From Sludge and Rock
The Greek-American immigrant story of Middlesex blends with the intersex-awakening story of Middlesex even better than simply through an embrace of life’s excessive meaning. I’d actually call it a very Deleuzian book (some relative spoilers coming, though, maybe, depending on your definition).
At many times in the book, Eugenides’ narrator describes himself and his family as assemblages. Particularly, assemblages of genes, phenotypes, hormones, and proteins. We’re chemical as well as psychological and narrative. That doesn’t detract from our humanity – it's part of what constitutes humanity.
Life is physical, an assemblage of forces, imperatives, and tendencies. They all run actively under our intentions and personalities, shaping who we are. We aren’t passive before them, because we’re the actors of our own desire. But those drives and forces, channelled through the personalities they constitute, become desire.
|Eugenides depicts a Detroit that becomes a vibrant centre of industry
and a hollowed-out husk within a generation. The Detroit that really
exists. This is Central Michigan Railway Station, abandoned to rot
That's the desire that the narrator’s grandparents Desdemona and Lefty have for each other. Their desire is the vehicle for the proliferation of intersex people, in the deep physicality of their metabolisms and cell nuclei. Their intense sexual desire and deep love for each other drives them to their incestuous marriage.
It’s kept secret from everyone around them because they’re the only survivors of their home village, destroyed by the nationalist Turkish army. That same desire appears in their son Milton, who seduces his cousin by playing clarinet against her skin. Jazz has rarely been so properly erotic.
The narrator, faced with the prospect of genital surgery that would destroy her capacity for pleasure, flees and begins living as a man. He’s already been awakened to sexuality through falling in love with a female classmate, and understands that his nature can’t fit in the strict definitions of life in mid 20th century middle America.
That’s another beautiful line of Eugenides’ story – the tension of real human difference with the conservative determination for simplicity and conformity. That’s another way that the immigrant and intersex stories blend together.
The grandparents flee massacre by a nationalist army – their city Smyrna is burned to the ground and rebuilt as Turkish Izmir. Lefty faces constant company propaganda to abandon his Greek culture and assimilate to WASP Americanism while working at Ford Motors. Desdemona runs an indoor silk farm for a clothing business of the early Nation of Islam.
They give birth to a son who joins the army, takes over his dad’s restaurant, becomes an Eisenhower Republican, and moves his family out to the suburbs when too many blacks settle his neighbourhood. Then that son has a precocious little daughter who grows into a young man by age 15. Every drive to conformity and conservatism is ultimately shot to hell by life itself.
Humans are constructs of desire – made from forces that are prior to our individualities, and always roil beneath our identities and everyday thoughts. That desire pushes us in singular directions, uniquenesses that can’t be tied down to a single code or conform to a unified nature. No matter how much you might believe in the morality that says you must.
That's the story of Eugenides’ Middlesex. Depicting such singular existence is the point of art.