A young organist once mentioned that he doesn’t listen to music the way some of the rest of us do. While I’m usually aware of the time signature, or at least a basic pattern to beat, much more than that fills his awareness. We could begin with the key or chordal progressions or structural development or phrasing. As for emotions? Way down on his list.
Of course, something similar happens for me as a reader. The author looks at much else besides the story, as reading reviews of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex reminds me.
I’ve already mentioned that my primary interest was in its presentation of Greek-American life. These aren’t celebrities or university professors or artists but people trying to survive the economic challenges of everyday existence. He does so in a matter-of-fact way, with a darker view of humanity than I’d usually take but more accepting of their foibles and failures, too. Everyone’s flawed. He’s not afraid to reveal the villains among them, family or not. If only I could revisit my own Sunday dinners with such cold accuracy! (The skeletons in my family closet, from what I can tell, are much further back and mostly in my mother’s ancestry. But the dysfunctions, well, that’s an entirely different matter.) To put his accomplishment here in a different light, his details are both particular and universal. They hit close to home. If only we had terms of affection like Dolly mou, which I take to be a variation on Koukla mou. Or, for that matter, if we were only so outwardly open and affectionate, period.
The novel’s more prominent theme, Cal’s sexual identity, advances in good taste. Nothing salacious but rather an ongoing, almost innocent discovery by narrator and reader alike. Eugenides manages the rare accomplishment of being a male who writes a convincing female character from within. In fact, he gets close enough to have had me wondering if were writing autobiographically of his own condition. That, alone, is astonishing.
As I was reading, I wasn’t yet aware of his reputation as a short-story master, but it makes sense. Much of this novel builds as shifts between stories separated over time.
Technically, his use of point of view is amazing. His Virgin Suicides was acclaimed for its daring use of first-person plural. Here, though, he mixes first-person singular, with its immediacy and intimacy, and third-person, with its semi-omniscient awareness, sometimes in abutting sentences, so that you get a stereoscopic view at once from within and without. Through the first half of the book, especially, much of this happens before Cal’s birth, which creates a kind of time travel. And it works. How much of the related details are “real” and how much merely imagined by the narrator, we should note, remains up in the air. But it’s effective, all the same.
Eugenides’ presentations of the massacre by the Turks and later race riot in Detroit are masterful and moving.
Throughout, the factual accuracy feels right. He’s done his homework and often conveys complexities with a few confident brush strokes. His insights on Eastern Orthodox Christianity are especially notable that way. As for his takes on hippie experience, I’ll simply say, Ouch! As I said, he often takes a darker view of humanity than do I.
Another major subject is his corner of the American Midwest. Contrary to common opinion, the region is hardly homogeneous and is anything but compact. Ohio, for instance, is the size of England. Presentations of it in contemporary literature are surprisingly rare, at least in proportion to the population. And there are many variations in the underlying cultures and outlooks. Kurt Vonnegut’s Indiana, for one thing, is quite different from Saul Bellow’s Chicago – and neither of them resembles what I know of Eugenides’ locale, Detroit. (Let me add my own emphasis on the importance of place itself to the extent it might be considered a character within much of my writing.)
What Eugenides presents is a more compact metropolis than I remember, but definitive in a blend of influences I recognize across much of northern Ohio and Indiana as well. Whether dealing with the older inner city, which then leads into issues of race and racism, or later suburban life, the descriptions resonate with what I found throughout the industrial Rust Belt. Cal’s grandfather’s encounters with Ford Motor Company’s melting-pot police or Cal’s father’s dealing with the real estate point system quickly demonstrate the cost of maintaining a unique identity. You didn’t have to be an immigrant to run afoul of that, either, I’d add from another direction.
It’s not a “perfect” novel, but nothing this ambitious could be. As the Detroit Free Press review expressed, “What Dublin got from James Joyce — a sprawling, ambitious, loving, exasperated and playful chronicle of all its good and bad parts — Detroit got from native son Euginides.”
For me, a drift sets in late in the volume with the introduction of the Desired Object and Cal’s sexual desire awakening. The tight construction seems to be coming apart, sprawling, but! In retrospect, it’s more that a second novel is taking off with leaps to Manhattan and then San Francisco before coming to a powerfully focused and moving conclusion.
So here I am, full of admiration and wonder. How does he pull this off? Where do those brilliant flashes of humor spring from? How does he make some essentially unsympathetic characters come to life in daily survival?
He plays throughout the story with Cal’s grandmother’s skillful touch with silkworms and the ways their silk reflects events around them. It’s one more stream of knowledge that runs like a thread holding the work together.
Eugenides, then, may be seeing himself as a silkworm issuing the long, long filament – for that matter, a nearly endless stream of organ chords – or, as we’d say, spinning a yarn.
Somehow, it all fits. Marvelously.