In today’s publishing world, it’s impossible to keep up with the output. Even in a specialized niche.
I recall asking an English department chair at a respected college if she’d heard of so-and-so – the kind of novelist who gets reviewed by the New York Times both in its daily edition and again, independently, in the Sunday Book Review section. The answer was no.
(In fairness, she and her husband always introduce me to a range of fine authors when I scan their many home library bookshelves.)
Why wasn’t I surprised?
More recently, recognizing the extent of Greek-American influence in my own community and throughout much of the Northeast, I began searching for works that might reflect its family life and culture. Even a search by a public library research desk came up pretty empty. The Greek-American authors we did find seemed to be writing about other things.
There are, as I’ve noted, a few exceptions, but there should be more.
And then, by chance, I picked up Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. His was one of the Greek-American names I’d come across, but this story was focused on five sisters in a Roman Catholic family. I quickly resonated with the Midwestern setting of the story, which easily fit into a band across northern Ohio and Indiana and, as became more apparent, southern Michigan. This was familiar terrain, not far from my native soil – and another one that is rarely represented in literary fiction (yes, I know the objections to the term – but how do we distinguish it from commercial genres that are sales driven?). Despite its gruesome premise, this is a humorous book, befitting the thwarted desires and misunderstandings of its adolescent male observers.
And then, on page 171 of the paperback I was reading, came a glimmer of the novel I’ve been seeking. In the household of the narrator’s friend Demo Karafilis, we encounter his grandmother, Old Mrs. Karafilis, who generally stays to her room in the basement, where she keeps her memories of growing up a Greek in Turkey who managed to escape with her life. The next three-and-a-half pages are an incredible portrait that left me yearning for the novel-length development. As Demo explains it, “We Greeks are a moody people. Suicide makes sense to us. … What my yia yia could never understand about America was why everyone pretended to be happy all the time.”
What I discovered a few nights later, in the stacks of the library I’d consulted earlier, was the elusive Greek-American novel. How could it be so invisible after being acclaimed on Oprah’s list and even awarded a Pulitzer Prize? It was Eugenide’s second novel, a 529-page masterpiece.
Maybe part of it has to do with the sexuality theme that masks everything else – the narrator’s peculiar adolescent gender shift thanks to a recessive gene and the impact of earlier incest. Well, it is a riveting tale. For me, though, the primary story of Middlesex is the multigenerational presentation of a Greek-American family and its culture, done in a matter-of-fact way, with nothing sentimentalized. It’s an incredibly rich novel, no matter which part of the narrative claims your attention.
Not to take anything away from all the novels of ethnic life in New York City or Chicago or the regional flavors of New England, the South, southern California, Texas and other Far West locales, it’s safe to say many other strands of American life are greatly underrepresented or even missing entirely.
Any you want to point out?