“That’s Theseus... He’s got this ball of string his girlfriend gave him, see. And he’s using it to find his way back out of the maze,” the young Calliope is told by her father. Drawing from the Greek heritage that the two of them share, Calliope Stephanides, the hermaphrodite narrator of Jeffrey Eugenides’ second novel “Middlesex” who will come to be known as Cal, follows the history of his family across two generations and one ocean in order to come to terms with the tragedy of his very existence. In tracing the thread of his own improbable lineage, Cal becomes a recursive hero; sorting, like Theseus, through a thread whose interminability confines him forever, like the Minotaur, to his prison. Mediating the scope of classical tragedy through the lens of immigration and heritage in America, Eugenides brilliantly maps the drama of antiquity onto the American landscape.
“Middlesex” is Cal’s novel: a family history tracking the recessive gene mutation that accounts for his troubling condition as “a male pseudohermaphorodite—genetically male, but appearing otherwise.” He starts in Turkey: siblings Desdemona and Lefty flee that country’s conflict with Greece to start anew in America as husband and wife. In Detroit, cousins Milton and Tessie fall in love and become engaged amidst the turmoil of the Second World War. Calliope, their daughter—born and raised as a girl—learns of her Y chromosome after a tractor accident brings her to a hospital. In a moment of radical loss of identity, she flees her home and moves to San Francisco. Struggling to escape the vestiges of femininity and grappling with loneliness and alienation, Calliope becomes Cal and sets to the reflective task of writing “Middlesex.”
Eugenides deftly weaves each generation’s narratives together to form an epic saga brimming with parallels. While each new generation drifts further in identity, culture, and success from its predecessor, the reality of the collective tragedy that culminates in Cal/Calliope’s gender dysphoria is unavoidable. “But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born,” he remarks.
The disjunctions in time and distance serve to highlight the similarities of each generation and their plight. As Cal recounts fleeing his past and his family for San Francisco, he states “A ship didn’t carry me across the ocean; instead, a series of cars conveyed me across a continent. I was becoming a new person, too, just like Lefty and Desdemona, and I didn’t know what would happen to me in this new world to which I’d come.” Cal’s sexual transformation is, for his generation, as heroic and insurmountable a task as immigration and assimilation was for his grandparents, if not moreso.
As a uniquely omniscient first-person narrator, Cal recounts his family’s story, including scenes and thoughts that he could not possibly know, adding his own opinions, musings, and questions. Describing his father’s conception, Cal poses, “Parents are supposed to pass down physical traits to their children, but it’s my belief that all sorts of other things get passed down, too: motifs, scenarios, even fates. Wouldn’t I also sneak up on a girl pretending to be asleep?” Cal is able to wax lyrical about the grand scheme of things, but still retains the intimacy that first-person perspective guarantees. This innovative approach also reflects Cal’s unique circumstances: belonging to the story being told yet isolated by his disorder; identifying with both sexes yet foreign to either one; socially aware yet ostracized by society.
Throughout his tale, Cal recounts a century of American history—Ellis Island, the Great Depression, the River Rouge Ford plant, Vietnam, Detroit race riots, the desegregation of schools, Watergate, the Cold War, and the oil embargoes. In doing so, Eugenides questions what it means to be American—citizenship, attitude, and history. Despite being third generation American and despite her family having climbed the class ladder—at least achieving the financial aspect of the American Dream—Calliope feels out of place in her private preparatory all-girls school. “Until we came to Baker & Inglis my friends and I had always felt completely American. But now the Bracelets’ upturned noses suggested that there was another America to which we could never gain admittance... It was about something that had happened for two minutes four hundred years ago, instead of everything that had happened since. Instead of everything that was happening now.” The confusion as to what comprises national identity reflects the complexity of what determines sexual identity. Each have simple answers—citizenship and genitalia—that pose more questions—assimilation and the gendered mind. Though the Bracelets derive their certainty and power from their families’ past, Cal finds little consolation and few answers in his own warped past.
Eugenides juxtaposes—almost cruelly—a narrative that barrels through history and the reality of Cal’s reflective intransigence. The novel’s historical reflections are interspersed with fragments of Cal’s search for emotional connection, and his flight from that connection into anonymity and loneliness. These passages manifest Cal as the tragic center of the novel. “If this story is written only for myself, then so be it. But it doesn’t feel that way. I feel you out there, reader. This is the only kind of intimacy I’m comfortable with. Just the two of us, here in the dark,” admits Cal. The process of writing stunts and spurs Cal’s acceptance of his condition. He confronts yet is enslaved by the past, the cosmic and minute details that allow for his existence. He admits and illuminates his condition, but to an anonymous reader who cannot offer him solace. We’re grateful for being dragged along for the journey, but conflicted as to whether we want him to complete Theseus’ task—cheering for Cal to defeat the Minotaur within him yet not wanting him to rewind the string of his narrative to that first knot, where he would have to bring to a close this sweeping story.