Eugenides' 'Middlesex' tweaks Eliot's footnotes

September 15, 2002|By Norah Vincent | By Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 544 pages, $27.

When you are a writer and your name is Eugenides, you can be forgiven for showcasing the mention of your name in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land: "Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, unshaven, with a pocketful of currants, asked me in demotic French to luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel."

But to build a novel around the passage's mostly obscured meaning, as our Mr. Eugenides seems to have done, is ill-advised, and too ambitious. Even Mailer or Pynchon would have been hard -- pressed to make it work.

Jeffrey Eugenides' 1993 debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, was a masterful black-comic joyride into suburban anomie. Readers eagerly anticipated a follow-up. But it has taken Eugenides nearly 10 years to produce one. Delayed expectations are easily dashed, and that may be the reason why this new book is such a disappointment.

Middlesex is about Cal, a hermaphrodite who was born Calliope Stephanides and raised in Detroit as a girl by her second-generation Greek immigrant family. Cal is now living as a man in Berlin, and the narrative purports to be his psychosexual memoir. But immediately he sidelines himself, preferring instead to explain his odd condition by launching into a protracted, coy history of his recessive genes.

This takes the form of a family saga that begins in 1922 with his paternal grandparents, refugees of -- you guessed it -- Smyrna, who, though they are brother and sister, marry incognito on the boat to Ellis Island, and land safely in Michigan masquerading as legitimate man and wife. There, they and their issue scrounge a living, and proceed guiltily to copulate their way into the family curse, the anomalous Cal.

Parts of this incestuous romp are perfectly serviceable and serious. Eugenides does, for example, attempt to write a passable ethnography of Detroit roughly covering the period from Prohibition to the race riots of the late '60s. But the territory is too vast, and he throws it together in haste while galloping toward the supposedly good stuff at the end -- Cal's sex life. Yet even Cal's misadventures, when they finally unfold, don't make up for the ancestral detour, because they are told even more hurriedly, tacked on almost as a prurient afterthought.

So why does such a gifted writer sabotage himself by jury-rigging an unwieldy tome of shreds and patches? Eliot may be to blame.

The inspiration for Eugenides' novel appears to have been Eliot's famously oblique footnotes to The Waste Land, wherein the poet informs us that the key to the passage about the Smyrna merchant quoted above, and indeed the whole poem, is Tiresias. In Greek mythology, Tiresias, the blind seer of Thebes, was transformed for a time into a woman.

He is, therefore, the symbolic hermaphrodite who, Eliot explains, "is the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant [Eugenides], seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias."

Thematically, this is a Gordian knot. Did Eugenides tackle it because he felt somehow compelled by his surname to entwine his family history with Eliot's poem? He is, after all, a native of suburban Detroit and, obviously, of Greek extraction. Perhaps this explains the hodgepodge of Smyrna, hermaphrodism and Michiganders. Who knows? But whatever its convoluted derivation, Middlesex founders because it never coheres. It fails to impress because it doesn't know what it is. In short, it doesn't work, and Eugenides is capable of more than this. No doubt he will prove so the next time around.

Norah Vincent, who lives in New York City, is co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart and Cultured (Hyperion, 1998). Her work has appeared in the New Republic, The New York Times, Lingua Franca and many other publications. She writes a regular column for the Los Angeles Times and for Salon.com. She is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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