The idea that Middlesex (by Jeffrey Eugenides) is about a person who is somewhere in the middle ground between what we call female and male is a bit of a ruse. It is true to some degree: the narrator is genetically male and has a rare condition that caused, among other things, the development of what appears to be female genitalia. As a result, she is raised as a girl named Calliope. At age 14, with the onset of puberty, things become less clear and by 15, Calliope begins to live as Cal, a boy no matter what his genitals look like. Eugenides also gives some time to the nascent intersex movement during the 1970s and 1908s, but all this is not the main point.
Instead, the novel is a multigenerational epic of immigration to the U.S. from Smyrna, in what we currently call Turkey but what was once part of Greece. It is a story of survival, of assimilation, of living the American Dream and losing the community and culture of the old world. In fact, the whole thing can be seen as a morality tale, because if Cal’s grandparents hadn’t been forced by the Greco/Turkish war to leave their small village, they wouldn’t have been able to marry and have kids. In their village everyone knew they were brother and sister, not husband and wife. It is only in the U.S., that cultural eraser, that this could happen. In an explicitly metaphorical sequence of remaking their identities during the passage across the Atlantic, the siblings ignore each other, enacting their courtship and marriage before the shipboard audience, none of whom knew them before the trip. It is the new world for them in more ways than one. The consequences multiply when their son unknowingly marries his cousin, and Calliope is born from this second union.
But it’s only a morality tale if we think of Calliope as a bad ending to the story. It is not clear that Eugenides wants to say that. On the contrary, you get the sense—or at least the hope—that the intersexual is the future, a new brand of humans not bound by old dichotomies. Furthermore, Calliope is concerned with all the same things any person is: family history, injustice in the world, parental approval, sibling relationships, first love—not necessarily in that order. Her genitalia are a factor in all this, but only one and ultimately not the most important one. And so, by not making his narrator’s physical being the primary focus of the book, Eugenides normalizes it.
Middlesex weaves mythology, history, political and social upheaval, intersexuality, and teen angst into whole cloth. Turning the morality tale on it’s end, Eugenides creates a new hybrid novel that is more interesting, more compelling, and just plain better. It’s a stunning achievement.