Imagine the following mundane scene: A woman stands over a pile of freshly done pile of laundry, sorting. Skirts all go on hangers in the closet, jeans all go in the bottom drawer. Then she finds a pair of denim koolats. Do they go in the drawer, or in the closet? Maybe you’ve experienced this phenomenon. Humans love to organize, separating “all this” into “this” or “that.” The problem is once you divide “this and that,” the “other thing” always seems to emerge, challenging our sense of order and control and exposing the arbitrary, unnatural nature of compartmentalization.
Gender is no different. As small children, we learned to distinguish between boys and girls, with differing toys, clothes, bathrooms, sports teams, and so forth. But what about people who fall in between? The recent media maelstrom over South African runner, Caster Semenya is a true life example of a person who was raised as female but biologically was a hermaphrodite, having both male and female sexual organs. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel (2003), Middlesex, the saga’s eventual protagonist, Calliope Stephanides, was born with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, or 5-ARD, a condition which decreases the level of testosterone to such a degree as it can mask the individual’s maleness. 5-ARD, and the author’s intensive research into its intricacies, is Middlesex’s “hook,” the one line description that gets the reader interested.
However, there is more to the story than Calliope, who is raised as “Callie,” and becomes “Cal,” the narrator of a limited yet overreaching omniscience. Cal, as an adult, has a psychic recollection of his family’s exodus from Greece during the brutal invasion of the Turks. The first arch and crescendo of this saga begins in a rural village named Bithynios, in the summer of 1922, with a young Desdemona Stephanides high on Mount Olympus, in her silk cocoonery surrounded by twenty thousand silkworms, all spinning. Her heart skips a beat. She has a prescient sensation that something is wrong; that she is somehow sick on the inside.
She has already lost her parents, who were murdered by invading Turks. But the worst is yet to come; the retreat of the Greek army setting fire to everything in their path to destroy it before the Turks could take it, a disgraceful naval retreat led by General Hajienestes, who was suffering from mental illness, and the apathy of the Allied forces who sat by idly while civilians including women and children were mutilated and massacred.
Amidst the backdrop of this disintegration of civilization, Desdemona and her brother Lefty break the incest taboo and become lovers. It seems repugnant and yet is presented as a reaction to the madness around them. As the hillside burns, the tormented lovers flee with only what they carry. The kindness of a stranger, Dr. Phlibosian, an Armenian, who lends Lefty some money which he uses to buy bread -their first food in three days- and win a massive amount of money, by gambling in a bar, in order to pay for passage for himself and Desdemona.
Once onboard, Lefty and Desdemona pretend they have never met before, and act out a fake “courtship” in which they fool the passengers into thinking that they are two young strangers falling in love. The Captain marries them aboard the ship, and they arrive in America knowing only a Detroit cousin, Sourmelina, who has a secret of her own: Although she lives like a normal, married woman, she is actually a lesbian. So Lefty lets Sourmelina in on the fact that he has married his sister, but nobody else in America ever finds out, until Desdemona, now an old lady confesses it to her grandson, Cal, and the family excuses her comments as symptomatic of senility.
Sourmelina’s husband is, in this tale of unusual characters, arguably the most far-fetched. His name is Jimmy Zizmo and he has some shady connections, as well as mistrusting everyone, especially his wife. It’s not Jimmy’s gangster persona or even his violent death as he plunges into an ice cold lake – but his relationship to W.D. Fard, a self-proclaimed supreme being who prophesizes about the “Tricknology” of the white man to his Nation of Islam followers that is completely unexpected.
Jimmy is in the story long enough to father a daughter, Tessie. Desdemona and Lefty have a child, too, a boy named Milton. Only because Milton and Tessie, who are cousins, grow up and marry each other, does the recessive gene which causes 5-ARD appear in Callie. Callie’s story develops after the story of Tessie and Milton and their ascendancy toward the American Dream as Milton builds the Hercules Hotdog empire one hot dog stand at a time. How Callie slowly discovers that she is actually a he, and the medical and psychological expert’s mishandling of the situation, comprise the remainder of this intense novel, with its capriciously twisting and turning plot, until we are breathlessly brought back to Cal’s present day situation as a foreign diplomatic officer.
Like many Pulitzer Prize winning authors, Jeffrey Eugenides has ties to Hollywood. His previous novel, The Virgin Suicides, became a Sofia Coppola film starring James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst and Josh Harnett in 1999. His story “The Baster” has been turned into another movie, currently in post-production and starring Jennifer Aniston; the film is said to be opening in 2010 under a new title.