Last week the documentary Middle Sexes: Redefining He and She premiered on HBO. I didn't see it, but it reminded me of a recent novel I had read, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (who also wrote The Virgin Suicides) whose main character is a hermaphrodite.
Middlesex follows the trials and tribulations of the Stephanides family as narrated by Cal, an adult male formerly known as Callie back when he was a girl. And, no, Cal is no transsexual; he is a hermaphrodite. I had no idea what the book was about when I first picked it up. I thought it was some period piece set in England (yawn), imagine my surprise when I read the first line, "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."
I was titillated and intrigued. Something, no doubt, the author had intended or, at least, had hoped for. Present day Cal is fairly well adjusted for a person living something of a dual existence. But he's got issues. Serious issues. He starts from the very beginning and tells us his family's tale in an effort to make sense of it himself and learn more about the origins of his "condition".
The epic tale begins in Ottoman-controlled Greece. You are first introduced to Desdemona and Lefty, a brother and sister living in a village on a hillside during a time of political upheaval. Lefty is a passionate and restless young man and Desdemona is ever the responsible, practical older sister trying to keep it together as their parents are now dead. As is her duty, she is trying to marry Lefty off. But he has other ideas.
Ideas that include making the moves on his sister. I know -- totally gross. But Eugenides spins the love story in such a way that you actually sympathize with the siblings. You know it's wrong and yet you still find yourself secretly rooting for Lefty as he declares his feelings and pleading with Desdemona to give in to her urges. It's twisted.
Years of such inbreeding are the cause for Cal's physical state. Desdemona and Lefty escape Turkey and head for the United States where they start a new life as husband and wife rather than brother and sister. They head to Detroit where their cousin lives and begin their pursuit of the American Dream. Lefty goes to work for Ford, learns English, gets involved in bootlegging, starts a speakeasy in the basement, and eventually opens up a diner. Meanwhile, Desdemona bears and raises two children, keeps the house running through the Depression and goes to work for the black Muslims (think Louis Farrakhan).
The story then follows the lives of their children where more inbreeding ensues. Desdemona and Lefty's son, Milton, marries his cousin Tessie. Good times. Milton and Tessie, (at this point) Callie's parents, move out to the suburbs with their two young children in tow and thrive in an upper middle class existence. Callie is a beautiful young girl who blossoms into a hunkering, awkward adolescent and her brother is a geek who turns into a hippy in college much to his parents' dismay.
It is during this "ugly stage" in Callie's life (she's tall, her voice is changing and she doesn't have any of the womanly attributes girls her age have already been developing) that she "discovers" that she in fact also has a penis, which she naively and euphemistically refers to as a "crocus". It is also during this time that others discover her extra package. A discovery that eventually leads her/him on a cross-country road trip culminating in San Francisco.
Unfortunately, so much of the novel focuses on Cal's grandparents that you are left wanting for more of his/her own story. There are references made earlier on in the novel that are never followed through with and you are still curious about Cal.
What was college really like for him? What was the rest of high school like? Callie had attended an all-girls school. Where did Cal have to go?
Cal refers to his first relationship but never delves into it. I realize maybe Eugenides wanted to stray away from sexual accounts that came off as sensationalist, and didn't want to turn Cal from a regular ol' character into "the other". But not dealing with these issues at all was not the way to go.
It made my imagination wander. I started doing research on hermaphrodites. I wanted to know how it all worked. How it must have been for Cal. I needed to fill in the blank spaces. Did you know that some hermaphrodites can get pregnant? That's amazing. Technically, it's like a man being able to have a baby. But different.
But Cal can't get pregnant. I least I don't think so. Anyways, Middlesex has too many gaps to be a great book. I wasn't quite satisfied when I finished reading the last page. The novel ended up being more about Cal's family than about him/her but, then again, that may have been the point. And while the Stephanides are engaging and amazing, I wanted more about Cal. After all, the book is called "Middlesex" rather than "My Big Fat Incestuous Greek Family".
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Paperback, 544 pages