Saturday, August 30, 2008

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The novel got a lot of buzz when it came out, and this was compounded when Oprah choose it for her book club. Normally, I am skeptical of over-hyped novels, but my wife read this, and she knows what I like.

This epic novel of three generations of a Greek family begins with a brother and sister escaping from the ethnic cleansing of Greeks by the Turks living in Smyrna in 1922. They came to Detroit, after marrying on the ship from Athens, and began the long journey narrated by their grand daughter, Calliope.

Calliope is one of the nine muses – daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus – and she is associated with epic poetry. Aristotle tells us that an epic is a long narrative poem about the travels and adventures of a hero. The call on the muse is first, and here the muse tells her own story. The epic also contains a catalogue of heros and heroines, and Eugenides has certainly filled his story with those. The epic simile (an extended metaphor) is next, and Middlesex abounds in those. Here is a fine example, "I’d never been this close to the Obscure Object before. It was hard on my organism. My nervous system launched into “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The violins were sawing away in my spine. The timpani were banging in my chest. At the same time, trying to conceal all this, I didn’t move a muscle. I hardly breathed. That was the deal basically: catatonia without; frenzy within" (326).

Finally, the epic question posed by the author, answered by the story: Calliope or Cal?

Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, builds on Aristotle, by adding elements of the hero’s journey. The call to adventure was Calliope’s need to fulfill the destiny of her grandparents who planted the seed of Calliope’s misfortune when they decided to marry. She had many helpers in the Greek community, which insulated her family from the changing environment of the New World. She embraces atonement with her father when she returns (another element of the hero’s journey) and plays the role of her father. The trip to New York and the visit to the “Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic” is a descent to the underworld where Calliope must confront the terrible secrets of her family's past while embracing her future.

Lest I reveal too much more of the plot, I will let the reader discover more parallels with Campbell’s theory. But this is a must read. The descriptions are vivid, the poetry of the story is enchanting. Calliope tells her story, siren-like, and pulls the reader onto the rocks of disbelief. But in the end, Calliope is the hero of this story. Cal does come back, and his life is made better by the elixir of self-knowledge and realization of his place in the world. The ending is sweet without being sappy. Five stars.

--Chiron, 8/30/08

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