Middlesex (2002)

by Jeffrey Eugenides

Published in 2002, Middlesex is a timely novel more than a decade later because of the subject of gender identity. It is the first-person story of an intersex person, Calliope/Cal, who lives as a girl until age 14 , when hormonal tests reveal s/he has a rare genetic disorder and possesses the male chromosome Y. Thereafter Calliope chooses to become Cal, living a solitary life as a male and avoiding intimacy because of his ambiguous genitalia.

In Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides has also written an immigrant story. Calliope/Cal’s grandparents are Greeks who escaped the Turkish massacre of the Greeks of Smyrna in the 1920s. Unknown to all but one person in Detroit, their new home, is that they are brother and sister (which is responsible for the chromosomal abnormality’s emerging in their grandchild). Other than the incest angle, it is a fairly typical but still engrossing immigrant saga of three generations, with the family progressing from the old country to resettlement in racially tense Detroit, assimilation of the US-born, and finally a move to the suburbs. 

In this age of increasing tolerance of homosexual and transgender persons, it is good to be aware of other forms of sexual difference as well. Unfortunately, Eugenides’s book doesn’t help us understand intersexuality well—we don’t get much keen insight on that subject from the adolescent Calliope or the adult Cal. Although Cal talks about his ability “to see not with the monovision of one sex but in the stereoscope of both,” his choice to be male presupposes a person must be one or the other.

By the end of the book, however, we see Cal as a human being, with human traits just like the rest of us—and maybe that was supposed to be the message.


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