Friday, July 3, 2009
There may not be a problem with Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex so much as there is a problem with that nebulous creature we call "literary fiction" or more specifically, the coming-of-age story. If you've read any of this type before, you'll notice that for all it's markings of supposed oddity and outrageousness, Middlesex is really a very conventional and straightforward text. Eugenides does not do enough to distinguish his work from that of other practitioners of the bildungsroman such as Michael Chabon, Salman Rushdie, John Irving, or reaching further back, Mark Twain.
Like all coming-of-age stories, Middlesex provides us with a background to draw us into the characters. However, unlike more readable and successful novels, the background overwhelms the novel's main story, in this case the story of an Intersex American named Calliope (later Cal) Stephanides. Cal's birth opens the novel, but from there we are whisked back to Smyrna, in 1922, to get Eugenides' laborious and uncomfortable introduction of incest amid disaster. It is hundreds of pages before we get back to Cal's birth, and our only glimpses of the narrator are in sputtering, useless scenes of his present life as a cultural attache in Berlin. These infrequent interludes are boring, and what's worse, are sometimes used merely for infuriating artifice, i.e. delaying big reveals in the plot, chopping up the timeline and so on. In short, they are a finger in the eye from the author, reminding us that he is in charge of the story.
Contemporary literary fiction is beset by unlikely and increasingly silly situations. I am thinking of such novels as Chabon's "Kavalier and Klay" where Josef Kavalier spends World War II in Antarctica as the sole survivor at a distant naval station, or Midnight's Children, where Saleem Sinai joins the Pakistan Army as a scent-sniffing dog. In the right hands these interludes can be revelatory not just of the characters, but of the place and time when they are set. Chabon is particularly capable in this regard. Other authors are masters at creating set pieces of memorable levity and wit, such as John Irving or Richard Russo. Unfortunately for Middlesex, Mr. Eugenides is not in either of these sets. His farcical situations are entirely too dry, too inexplicable, and too detached from the overall plot of the novel to do much besides inflate the number of pages. A section of the novel which sees Cal's grandmother Desdemona go to work for the Nation of Islam is especially egregious in this regard.
In a similar light, Mr. Eugenides is so eager to include the historical markers of his and Cal's lifespan that the effect is rather more of a shoehorn of names and events a la Forrest Gump instead of an exploration or consideration of any of them. The Detroit race riots take place early in Cal's life, but aside from some vague and cryptic statements, there is no attempt to reconcile the fear of white landowners with the destructive anger of the looting protesters. Without taking a side, or at least exploring the sides, this monumental event is reduced to a mere vehicle for the plot of the story (as Cal's father's insurance enables him to open a chain of restaurants and move to the suburbs.)
When the novel finally does get to Calliope, or Cal, it is too late. Mr. Eugenides does not invest enough of his time in creating a real life behind his central character. Instead he/she emerges as an unrealistic, and unrealistically well-informed, chronicler of things untold, of conversations and events outside her possible knowledge, and as an oddly convincing man or woman, and unidentifiable as any kind of third column, as it were. The novel ends more or less with Cal as a 15-year-old, only shortly after the decision to live as a man, and denies the reader any look at how Cal developed into the man narrating the story from the present day. One suspects this was more a product of a lack of imaginative prowess than any artistic consideration.
Middlesex is a novel short on memorable images, on eye-catching sentences, and short on likeable characters (Desdemona in particular is a maddening stereotype, the overly superstitious and pious immigrant who refuses to assimilate.) It gives the reader too much of a story they don't need, without bothering to tell the story that would be of infinitely more interest. Mr. Eugenides has a fair gift for dreaming up wildly implausible scenarios, but there is little else to recommend about this over-lauded novel. 3.5 out of 10.
Next? Well, I'm waiting to discover our Book Club pick for August, but I have All the Pretty Horses sitting on my shelf if I get the urge to pick it up.