May 17, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "Middlesex," by Jeffrey Eugenides

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex (2002)
By Jeffrey Eugenides
Book #16 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
The tale of "the most famous hermaphrodite in history," Middlesex is the second and latest novel by Greek-American Midwesterner Jeffrey Eugenides, his first being the cult hit (and eventual Sophia Coppola movie) The Virgin Suicides. And indeed, both of these things about Eugenides should be noted in this case, because the book is not just about a hermaphrodite who is "discovered" by a pop psychologist at the height of the "let it all hang out" 1970s (hence being the most "famous" hermaphrodite in history), but a Greek-American hermaphrodite who grew up just outside of Detroit, Michigan, one who grew up as a normal girl and never suspected anything different about herself when younger, due to an aging pediatrician her family was too loyal to stop going to during Calliope/Cal's childhood. As such, then, the vast majority of the book is not about Cal at all, but rather the two generations of Greeks and then Greek-Americans who led her/him to the place where she/he now is; from Cal's grandparents who just happened to be brother and sister as well, a fact conveniently hidden by the two of them during their rushed emigration to America during the Greece/Turkey border wars of the 1920s, to Cal's parents as well, who happen to be cousins themselves and who grew up as best friends in Detroit in the 1940s and '50s. After tackling the adulthoods of both these generations, then, and all the Forrest Gumpesque historical/narrative coincidences that happen in their lives (Detroit race riots! Turk invasions!), Eugenides finally gets around to telling Cal's unique story, and of the way she eventually morphed into a he during her/his tumultuous puberty in '70s San Francisco.

The argument for it being a classic:
Well, you can't argue with results, Middlesex's fans say; this did win the 2002 Pulitzer Freaking Prize, after all, considered by many to be the most prestigious literary award on the planet, not to mention the more important honor of being picked a few years later for the Blessed and Glorious Oprah's Book Club Hallowed Be Her Name Amen. And it's easy to see why once you read the book, its fans say -- because Eugenides has a naturally clear yet engaging writing style, telling funny and sad stories that many people can relate to but always in a highly original way. The signs are clear that this will eventually be considered a classic anyway, fans claim, so we might as well start treating it like one now.

The argument against:
Now, there's a much different argument to be spelled out by this book's critics; they'll claim that Middlesex is actually two novels mashed together, with it being obvious that Eugenides started by writing a tight, inventive, very delightful 150-page novel about the hermaphrodite main character him/herself, currently serving as the last 150 pages of this 550-page book. Ah, but then someone like Eugenides' agent or publicist must've said something like, "Jeff, baby, we can't sell this as a potential Pulitzer winner if it's only 150 pages! And hey, don't you know how hot quirky epic novels about the immigrant experience are these days? So why don't you, I don't know, tack another 400 pages onto the beginning of this, 400 pages that have absolutely nothing to do with your original novel but is instead a sitcom-worthy look at the utterly stereotypical lives of the generations that came before the hermaphrodite, a story so hackneyed and obvious that we might as well retitle the book My Big Fat Greek Film-Rights Paycheck? Yeah, that's the ticket!" And thus do you end up with this mishmash of a trainwreck, the critics say, something not quite a clever magical-realism tale for the hipsters and not quite a heartwarming family tale for the Oprah mouthbreathers, that only won the Pulitzer in the first place because of the political correctness of the Millennial years.

My verdict:
So first let me admit that I had no idea this book had been written in 2002, until I sat down to actually read it; there's been so many amazing things said about it in the last few years, after all, I had mistakenly assumed that it was 40 or 50 years old at this point, a mistake I won't be repeating in the future. And indeed, this is why those who love "classics" lists love them with such an intensity, and why the most important criterion for all these lists seems to be whether the book has stood the test of time; because just to use today's book as an example, in this case the critics are right, with it hard to tell if this book didn't get the accolades it did simply because the academic community in the late 1990s and early 2000s was searching so desperately at the time for weighty family sagas about the immigrant experience, written by people of color with immigrant backgrounds who just happened to have academic cred (which Eugenides has -- he's a literature professor at Princeton, just like our old friend Joyce Carol Oates).

In 50 years, will people look back on books like this one and sadly shake their heads, asking each other, "What were all those PC freaks at the turn of the century thinking, anyway?" It's hard to answer a question like that right now, a mere half a decade since the book came out in the first place (although I have a strong suspicion what the answer will eventually be); and this is why books that are less than 30 or 40 years old generally are not considered for such classics lists, because it's simply impossible to gauge ahead of time how well they will stand up over the decades. It's why I'm giving Middlesex today a definitive "no" to the question of whether it's a classic, and even warning readers that it's not a very good novel in general either, especially for a Pulitzer winner. A real disappointment today, probably my biggest since starting this essay series back in January.

Is it a classic? No

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
In two Fridays: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
In three Fridays: Candida, by George Bernard Shaw
In four Fridays: The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:57 PM, May 17, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |