Literary Inspiration: Middlesex

Middlesex Collage

Have you ever, fearing the absolute worst of something or someone, just put that something or someone off, for days, weeks or years?  I mean, hopefully if that something is, say, renewing your license and that someone is twenty one pilots’ drummer Josh Dun’s arms the Queen, you could hotfoot it a bit, but by and large, there are a spectacular number of obligations, experiences and even people that we can, and do, put by the wayside, sometimes forever, but mostly just for what feels like forever.  Then, many moons later, we finally get our acts together and do the uncomfortable thing that we’ve been putting off for absolutely no good reason whatsoever, and it’s no big deal.  Or, more likely, it turned out to be a great time/the very best course of action/just the thing that  needed to happen, and all we can do is berate ourselves after the fact for our nonsensical dithering (also known as WhyDidn’tIDoThisSooner-itis.)

I’ve done this with countless big ticket purchases (cars, mattresses, our apartment) and experiences – 13 Disney-less years of existence prior to 2017 would certainly bear out that assertion.  And I do it with the media I consume as well – whilst tidying up our possessions in contemplation of the nearly-completed renovations to our apartment, I found all manner of forgotten movies, television shows and books, things I meant to get to, but never did, because at one time in the distant past, they just weren’t speaking to me.

But life is short and all that not-so trite shite, and in my advancing years, I’ve learned that putting off the uncomfortable, the awkward, the expensive and the unpleasant does you no favours in the present, and maybe even a good deal of damage in the future.  So go ahead and buy that new mattress that both your back and sleeping patterns so desperately need, even though you know it’s going to be a righteous pain in the ass to move it in and dispose of the old guy, and mattresses are so expensive, so why even bother in the first place, even though you’re pretty sure if you sleep one more night on the back-breaker from hell, you’ll wake up crippled (totally speaking from personal experience here, and yes, our new mattress – delivered four days ago, and indeed, it was a pain moving it in – is divinely comfortable, and we’ve been getting great sleep, and Why Didn’t I Do This Sooner?)  Or hit up that restaurant/theatre/gallery/club/bar that you’ve always been interested in visiting, even though it’s in a completely inconvenient part of town with absolutely zero parking, and, and, and…just go, struggle a bit with the parking, sure, but ultimately enjoy a fantastic evening and discover a fun new activity, and Why Didn’t You Do This Sooner?  TL;DR?  The only predictable thing in life is its unpredictability, and the universe WILL be a dink.  So stop making excuses and get on with it already.

And that goes doubly for the movies and TV shows we (don’t) watch, the music we (sometimes) listen to and especially the books we (forget to) read, which have a tendency to languish on IKEA Billy bookcases for decades until we take them down and finally devour them as part of a friend’s reading challenge (the third prompt, “Carpe read ’em – a title on your TBR for 1+ years”), unexpectedly love the crap out them and then spend the next week berating ourselves for not reading them sooner.  Once again speaking from personal experience, this time regarding Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Middlesex, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from the author of my favourite book, The Virgin Suicides, and a novel that sat, unread, on my IKEA Billy bookcase for 17 years, because I ultimately just wasn’t that interested in the story and could never work up the motivation to even crack open the front cover.  And this is a book that was gifted to me because I asked for it!

Middlesex Bookshelf

But I was wrong to put off this novel for so long, because it was a certifiable discovery, one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read in years, and one tagged with a front cover pull quote from my hometown newspaper, no less!

Middlesex 1

But on its face, I get it, Middlesex doesn’t look like much.  This is the story of Calliope Stephanides, an American-born Greek growing up in suburban Detroit in the 1960s and ’70s.  Cal is born with ambiguous genitalia, a fact that goes completely unnoticed by her aging doctor, her loving, but increasingly WASP-y family, and even herself.  It’s not until Callie fails to develop like other girls her age that her parents take her to a specialist in New York City, an act that blows the lid off a huge family secret and sets the wheels in motion for Calliope to truly become Cal.

The story actually begins in 1922 in Bithynios with the man and woman who will become Cal’s grandparents fleeing the Turkish troops laying waste to their small Greek island.  We follow them as they immigrate to America, settling quickly in Detroit, with Cal’s grandfather, Lefty, taking work in the then-flourishing auto industry, whilst also dabbling in a bit of rum-running, gambling and speakeasy-ing on the side.  We watch as Cal’s grandmother, Desdemona, struggles with new American customs, holding firm to the old ways, though still desperately trying to outrun the past.  We see Lefty and Desdemona begin a family, and then watch as their son, Milton, grows into a deeply romantic young man, whose spurned affections for Tessie, the girl next door, lead him into a deeply ill-considered stint with the Navy.  But Milton returns to Detroit whole, and counting their lucky stars, he and Tessie marry and they begin a family of their own.  We then watch as their daughter, Calliope, grows up in the shadow of the floundering Motor City, a product of her Greek immigrant grandparents more than she could ever know.

Middlesex 3

Middlesex is a book about a person finding their true identity, inasmuch as they choose to be defined by their genetic markers.  But moreover, it’s a book about a person finding their true identity simply by living it.  We are there for every moment of Cal’s mostly average suburban life.  We see her attend school, make friends, develop an infatuation, spend time with her family – the stuff of normal childhood and teenage life.  She becomes the person she was was meant to be (or more accurately, the person he was meant to be) mostly because of her upbringing and environment – post race-riots Detroit – and less because of what gendered box she checks off on the census.  And when Callie finally does embrace the Cal side of her identity, it changes virtually nothing about his basic personality, which has always been kind, thoughtful, respectful and loving (dated though it now is, this book could be a timely resource in today’s politically-charged climate, a reminder that not all “others” are scary freakshows trying to steal the government’s money so they can swap genders as easily as pulling on a pair of pants; it’s a LOT more nuanced than that, and also a lot more normal – whatever that word means – than you might expect.)

There is a reason Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize, and that’s because Jeffrey Eugenides is a phenomenal writer.  Bit of a literary hermit, that one – he really only pokes his head out every 10 years or so, drops some astonishing bit of prize-winning art on us and then retreats to his foxhole.  But when people speak of effortless, lyrical writing, this is what they mean.  I can think of few authors who would be able to turn such a sprawling family tree into this engaging, enlightening and slyly funny a coming-of-age tale.  I absolutely adored Middlesex.  Please read it so we can talk about it together.

As always, I have nail art to accompany this review (can it be called a review if you spend the first 800 words talking about your renos?)  Here I’ve got the Detroit city skyline as against a gradient pink sunset, the only kind there apparently were in the heyday of the Motor City, when all the smog, pollution and miscellaneous floating about the atmosphere turned every sunset into a lurid pink fever dream.

Middlesex 4

4 thoughts on “Literary Inspiration: Middlesex

  1. Good for you for tackling the Carpe Read ’em. This post’s whole first paragraph used to be my life and I’m pretty sure it caused cancer, so I’m converted these days. Also become more of a do what I want to do kind of person in general now.
    I can’t say I’ll read this (you know my thoughts on The Virgin Suicides) but your review may get me closer than I ever would have.

    • Yes, isn’t that the other side of the dithering dilemma – when it comes to your health, we maybe just don’t want to know? So we put things off and put things off and then maybe we run out of time to deal with them because we’ve been so busy twiddling our thumbs in anxiety. Different matter altogether than fretting over your stupid mattress. I’m sorry you think YOUR fretting contributed to your cancer. Jesus, we can’t stay on top of freaking everything, and sometimes we just don’t want to know. But I like your newfound (or newer-found) approach to just get ‘er done. I’m really not sure I’m much further ahead for all my anxious worrying. Does me more harm than good. This book WAS great, though, shouldn’t have shelved it (haha) for so long.

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