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Fiction: A Secret Service by Mark Costello

t’s been
nine years since Jeffrey Eugenides’s first novel, The Virgin Suicides,
which you might remember for its comic-lyrical descriptions of suburban
Michigan, its first-person-plural choral narration, or its intimate recollection
of teenage sexual longing. For me, it’s the goofy parts that linger: Grosse
Pointe girls and boys playing cheesy records to each other over the phone
and Eugenides quoting whole stanzas of lyrics from campy ’70s bands. When
I read that book I thought: Here’s a confident writer, screaming with
talent and literary ambition, who’s actually out to entertain.

     Almost a decade later comes Middlesex.
Eugenides’s ambition has grown grander, and his virtuosity is in full flower
— he can do love scenes (heterosexual, homosexual, connubial, flirtatious,
passionate, incestuous, and gross), war scenes (at home and abroad), family
scenes (in several decades of American life), locker-room scenes (high
school girls, strip club freaks), fight scenes, car chases, field hockey
games, meditations on the nature of gender identity; he can even dramatize
medical discourse on the sexual development of the fetus (pay attention
and you might learn something) — but his looseness remains, along
with his gift for a good time. The book is a five-hundred-page dazzler,
fireworks in every paragraph, but Eugenides is rare among the authors
to whom he is likely to be compared — Jonathan Franzen or David Foster
Wallace, five-hundred page dazzlers both — in that he does not suffer
from their tendency towards self-conscious self-flagellation. He is telling
a story and he does not aspire to be difficult. Bennett Cerf once compiled
an anthology called Reading for Pleasure, and much of Middlesex
could have made its way into that. This is highbrow entertainment, moving,
wise, thoughtful, but, above all, fun.

     I first heard Middlesex described as a
novel about a hermaphrodite, which is true in a sort of ballpark way and
no doubt useful for booksellers; that much is supposed to tell you that
the book is daring, original, and shocking. But the novel’s true accomplishment
doesn’t lie in its subject matter but in its execution. (An aside for
those keeping count: Matthew Sharpe’s Nothing Is Terrible appeared
just a few years ago, another man’s original, accomplished, daring novel
about a hermaphrodite in the suburban ’70s, but that book cut a
different, more Barthelme-esque, figure.) Middlesex is a novel of broad scope: it’s multigenerational,
beginning in Greece in the 1920s and ending fifty-odd years later in suburban
Detroit. In long stretches , the narrative involves the life of Calliope
Stephanides — a genetic female who grows up male — but in its
entirety the novel is something larger: the history of the incestuous
Stephanides family, from the refugee-immigrant couple Lefty and Desdemona
(brother and sister, and Calliope’s grandparents), to assimilators Milton
and Tessie (cousins, and her parents), to Callie, later known as Cal.
It’s a novel of American identity, about being two things at once (sister-wife,
Greek-American, boy-girl), about where you come from and where you’re
going, about trying to figure out who you are and having the answer always
turn out to be ambiguous. Think Midnight’s Children for Hellenic Grosse

     And it is very funny. Here is Calliope on faking
menstruation: “I did cramps the way Meryl Streep does accents.” Or, on
the facing page, her Uncle Pete on Watergate: “Even from a chiropractic
standpoint, Nixon is a questionable character.” Here is part of the set
piece that anchors the first third of the novel: the burning of Smyrna,
the Turks invading, and Lefty and Desdemona on the run.

smell of things burning that aren’t meant to burn wafts across the city:
shoe polish, rat poison, toothpaste, piano strings, hernia trusses,
baby cribs, Indian clubs. And hair and skin. By this time, hair and
skin. On the quay, Lefty and Desdemona stand up along with everyone
else, with people too stunned to react, or still half-asleep, or sick
with typhus and cholera, or exhausted beyond caring. And then suddenly,
all the fires on the hillside form one great wall of fire stretching
across the city and — it’s inevitable now — start moving towards

Eugenides can be very delicate; he is never sensational in his description
of Calliope’s body. Here is the protagonist’s description of those sexual
part(s), a description which appears, it should be noted, very discreetly
and some four hundred pages into the book:

What I saw looking down at myself was only the
dark badge of puberty. When I touched the crocus it expanded, swelling
until with a kind of pop it slid free of the pouch it was in. It poked
its head up into the air. Not too far though. No more than an inch past
the tree line.

     Fireworks, everywhere.

     The book falls, more or less, into two halves.
In the first, we get the story of Calliope’s family coming into America
— Ellis Island, the roaring twenties, World War II, the rise of Black
Muslims. In the second, we get the story of the narrator coming into her
(and then his) own — birth, baptism, childhood, confused adolescence
marked by gender change. These two parts overlap — Callie is there
for the Detroit riots of 1967, for Nixon, for the Turkish invasion of
Cyprus — but they have their distinct tones. The historical stuff
is flashy, exuberant, and wild. The personal narrative is often more contemplative
and sorrowful; the anguish of a junior-high school hermaphrodite is done
with particular poignance.

     Some nit-picker, I suppose, could read the book
as inconsistent, split in two, and argue that, despite the author’s fine
workmanship and smooth transitions, the seams show and that Middlesex
is two novels in one. I’d argue the novel’s hybrid nature is appropriate
to its theme — if Middlesex operated on just one track, it
wouldn’t be true to itself or to the contradictions of its characters.


Gabriel Brownstein’s first book, The Curious Case of
Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W
, will be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in
October. His stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All Story, The
Northwest Review,
Literary Review and The Hawaii Review.
He lives in Brooklyn, New York.