She’s Come Undone

Jeff Turrentine is an essayist and critic whose articles have appeared in Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications.

Myths, whether ancient or modern, are basically designed to take the vexing mysteries of the universe and reformulate them as stories that make human sense. Jeffrey Eugenides has only two books to his name; nevertheless, he’s well on his way to becoming a spectacular mythologist, attacking some of our most enduring riddles with heroic energy, keen wit and genuine compassion.

In his first novel, 1993’s “The Virgin Suicides,” the riddle had to do with the incomprehensibility of grief: how the bereaved secretly envy the dead and long to join them. (What were the Lisbon sisters of that novel but lip-glossed suburban Pleiades whose self-destruction only made their stars shimmer that much more brightly?) In “Middlesex,” his long-awaited follow-up, the riddle is identity: how it develops, how it’s enforced and how gods and grandparents conspire to devise it long before we’re born.

In significant ways, “Middlesex”--a transatlantic epic about a star-crossed Hellenic family, narrated by an engagingly ironic hermaphrodite--is the formal opposite of “The Virgin Suicides.” The latter was taut almost to the point of astringency, though shot through with a dreamy, nocturnal surrealism. Eugenides has had nearly a decade to relax, and the happy result is a novel that’s as warm, expansive and generous as its predecessor wasn’t.


With the exception of the sisters’ despondent father, the characters in “The Virgin Suicides” often seemed to be caryatids: beautiful and fascinating to behold but cold to the touch. By contrast, everyone we meet in “Middlesex” is vibrantly alive. As Cal Stephanides, the 41-year-old narrator, unravels his amazing history, we come to know his brother, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and teenage crushes just as we have come to know our own. And in his exhaustive family inventory, we recognize the many baffling forces at work during our childhoods that shaped us into the adults we became.

“I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

“Middlesex” thus opens with the facts of Cal’s biological birth, but the story doesn’t begin there. To arrive at Cal’s mythic origin, we must go back further, to the fiery destruction of Smyrna in 1922 at the hands of a Turkish army bent on cleansing Asia Minor of its large and centuries-old Greek population. Fleeing the massacre are Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides, orphaned siblings barely out of their teens who defy bullets and bayonets to steal away on a ship bound for New York, from which they hope to proceed to a new life in Detroit.

While sailing across the ocean, brother and sister are joined as husband and wife, formalizing their deep love for each other in an act of Olympian temerity. Guilt and shame are their wedding attendants, but once arrived in Detroit they have little time for reflection or remorse: The brisk business of assimilation is at hand.

Lefty takes a job on the Ford assembly line, learning English at night and doing his best to adopt the habits and mannerisms of his new country. Desdemona marvels at the whizzing, clanging icons of American modernity and bonds with her (and her husband’s) cousin Sourmelina, the only other person on Earth aware of the couple’s dark secret.

Along with Sourmelina’s husband, the surly bootlegger Jimmy Zizmo, they comprise the incestuous genetic crucible from which Cal’s particular condition--a type of stealth hermaphroditism that makes males appear to be female until the onset of puberty--will emerge two generations later.

Cal is born Calliope Stephanides in a Detroit that’s still a few years from the race riots of the late 1960s and the end of American automotive hegemony in the 1970s, before white flight and economic malaise have taken hold. Among many things, “Middlesex” is the author’s love letter to a city that could probably use a few more.

In Eugenides’ hands, Detroit is imbued with all of the rough-hewn charm of Saul Bellow’s Chicago or Joseph Mitchell’s New York. Callie’s grandparents learn how to become Americans in its car factories, streetcars and Greektown cathedrals; her parents fulfill the ironic mandate of immigrants’ American-born children by high-tailing it out of their ethnic enclave and making a journey of their own, from hardscrabble city to leafy suburb.

Callie grows up in Grosse Pointe and, once her father’s restaurant business takes off, enjoys the privileges of life in such a place: private school, summers by the clubhouse pool, friends with vacation houses. But she and her family are forever subject to the centripetal force of Detroit’s Greektown community, and Callie no more “belongs” in the rarefied atmosphere of Grosse Pointe than she does in the teenage girl’s body in which she’s feeling less and less at home.

At about the same time that 14-year-old Callie begins to develop sexual feelings for her best friend, she doesn’t begin to develop something else: breasts. Her same-sex crush, her stick-like figure, the disconcerting appearance of a slight mustache and her no-show of a menstrual cycle are her first clues that the gods are upset. But everything still seems explainable: Some girls have late puberties, some have to contend with unwelcome facial hair and (this one is a bit harder for her to accept) some of them are just “that way.”

Not many, though, have a hidden set of male genitals, and when an emergency-room visit reveals that Callie is indeed among that tiny fraction of the female population, she can no longer wait in hiding for nature to correct itself. Her mystified parents take her to New York, where the protocol of a world-famous sexologist proves too much for her to bear. Callie runs away and begins a cross-country odyssey of self-discovery, by the end of which she will have become Cal.

Odysseys, shape-shifters, incest, Sapphic lust and generation-spanning “curses” fill the book; the list of classical references and themes that Eugenides leaves out of “Middlesex” might actually be shorter than the list of those he puts in. The novel even has a monster: One of the most heartbreakingly poignant moments revolves around Callie’s discovery of that word in the big leather-bound Webster’s at the New York Public Library, where she’s looking up various scientific terms that describe her condition.

All teenagers are half-certain that they’re freaks, mutants of some sort; but to have that suspicion confirmed by scholarly research is a nightmare that is uniquely Callie’s. Eugenides makes us feel every aspect of her horror and shame.

Joseph Campbell once provided a poetic job description for mythology, declaring that it “opens the world so that it becomes transparent to something that is beyond speech, beyond words--in short, what we call transcendence.” That’s a fine way to characterize this sweeping, sad, funny and tender story of a girl’s unlikely journey to manhood. Eugenides has taken the greatest mystery of all--What are we, exactly, and where do we come from?--and crafted a story that manages to be both illuminating and transcendent. “Middlesex” isn’t just a respectable sophomore effort; it’s a towering achievement, and it can now be stated unequivocally that Eugenides’ initial triumph wasn’t a one-off or a fluke. He has emerged as the great American writer that many of us suspected him of being.