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Middlesex: Brilliant Narration

         

I did it again. I’m midway through my next book and am now posting on *Middlesex* with the inevitable consequence that a lot of the thoughtful commentary I had stored up for this novel has seeped into the pages of the next. Oh well. Such is the life of this reader, and so you’ll be left with this less than fullsome review of what is a tremendous novel.

Principally tremendous because of its narration. The first person narrator, Cal(lie), weaves her (fictional) autobiography with the biographies of her parents and grandparents in the style of the best of these genres: stories not so much about the people themselves, but about the eras in which they live and the collective movements that shape their individual  experiences. So it is that with Cal(lie) we traverse the economic booms and depressions of Detroit – in one of the better novels-of-a-city I’ve come across), the civil rights movement and the emergence of a queer politics in San Francisco. 

Not only that, but the narrator’s willingness to imagine the perspective of others allows a quasi third person limited narration that glimpses at the reaction of her family members. An subtle, but powerful narrative move, too, comes as the narrative shifts to a conscious third person – you know the sort teenagers use when they’re telling their friends something funny – but in this case it’s not for comic effect, but rather because the narrator is so far removed from what is happening to his body and his identity that he fully loses “voice” of these sections of the narrative.

The story itself is compelling enough without the masterful narration, but the compelling plot – hermaphrodite man raised as girl discovers his masculinity in a painful climax of scientific/medicinal control over the body and the hegemony of the “normal body” – certainly provides a rich space for the narrative voice to reverberate.

And it’s true, nearly a week after finishing *Middlesex* I’m still struck by the singularity of Cal(lie), not as a “monstrous” body (as some characters in the book describe him), nor as an exceptional story of medicinal mishap and the ubiquity of the intersexed child, but rather as a singular expression of the bildungsroman. I can think of no better narrative exploration of the challenges, delights, horrors and ecstasies of coming-of-age. Descriptions of Cal(lie)’s attraction to the “Obscure Object” and the hesitating, sputtering, development of their relationship is quite simply brilliant.

So yeah. I really liked this one. I didn’t think I would. I should say that it sat on my shelf for years. I guess I thought it would be some kind of obsessive trip into gender/sexuality politics and that the whole book would be about the “monstrous” hermaphrodite body, but really it’s a book about growing up, about falling in love, about finding yourself, about fitting in to your family, about self-acceptance, *and* a book about being a hermaphrodite in a world that doesn’t always know exactly what to do with slippery identities. 

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The Marriage Plot: Not a plot, but a scheme

              

So I’m 28. It’s true. No more hedging around with 20 something, or mid-twenties. I’m a happy, comfortable 28. And unmarried. By any measure I’m just fine with my unmarried status. Jeffrey Eugendies’ novel, *The Marriage Plot,* makes me even happier to be unmarried (would I feel differently were I single? maybe): the novel depicts the disintegration of a ‘phase one’ marriage (phase one referring to those who marry immediately after college) and implicitly suggests that this is not the time, and we are not the generation, who ought to pretend to something like a lifetime commitment.

The title of the book comes from the thesis title of the quirky protagonist, Madeline. Madeline writes this undergraduate thesis on 19th century novels, and argues for particular kinds of marriages that emerge in literature. The coy nod to the reader is, of course, that this is a novel about marriage, too. The circumstances of marriage here are not those of the 19th century courting rituals, and yet the “plot” here contains the same elements of poor timing, misplaced communications/letters, a love triangle (or two), unexpected illness (not scarlet fever here, but manic-depression) and interfering parents.

In revealing the traps of marriage – the required compromise of ‘self’ for the protection of the ‘we’; the abandonment of the lusty body in favour of the sick, wasting body; the despair/resentment that emerges from disparity in income – the novel implicitly argues that marriage is not a “plot” in the sense of a sequence of events, but rather a “plot” in the scheming machinations of society too attached to antiquated notions of how relationships ought to operate. Instead, it suggests that young people need to take time to ‘find themselves,’ – as the lovelorn Mitchell does in his spiritual and literal trip to India – before they can hope to legitimately connect with another person.

While I found the actual plot – the sequence of events, that is – compelling – shifts character perspective and overlapping and extending temporal sequencing – I wasn’t as taken with the characters as I think I needed to be in order to care one way or another whether a) Leonard recovers from his depression or whether he kills himself (I was much more concerned with whether he would shave) b) Madeline and Mitchell end up together c) Madeline works out what might make her happy. Instead I sort of hoped that things would climax in some way that would be a triumph of activity – perhaps the long hinted at suicide attempt? – because the characters are not compelling enough on their own to captivate or provoke this readers empathy.

This is not to say this is a “bad” book, or not one worth reading. Quite the contrary, I think it’s a terrific book for its perspective on marriage, on the compromises required of self and partners to make relationships “work,” on the lengths we might be willing to go to disguise what we want from what we feel is expected of us. I just think it could have been a *better* book had the characters been more fully realized, or their complexities more believable. Yeah, that’s it. So sure, read it! but don’t mind if you don’t care whether Leonard offs himself or not. Kind of like the thematic questions are so interesting they get in the way of the characters themselves…

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Prize Winner