Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
When I was in college, a professor of mine gave me a number of books she thought I’d enjoy. At this point, I don’t remember why she did that. Maybe she didn’t even have a reason. I just remember that as a semester drew to a close, she gave me a stack of books she’d purchased for me.
It was an extraordinarily nice gesture, and one I still appreciate. I do recall that she apologized because she wasn’t able to find a copy of another book she wanted to give me: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. I’ve since bought a copy, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it. I think that when I do read it, I’ll be done with her recommendations, and that connection will break. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter may be a great novel. I could be richer for reading it. But sometimes positive connections are more important. I wouldn’t want to forget her gesture by virtue of finally resolving it.
She told me to read the novels at my leisure, which, of course, I would have done anyway, but she encouraged me to read one of them fairly soon. That was Middlesex. Jeffrey Eugenides was coming to the school to give a reading in a couple of months, she said, and familiarizing myself with the book first might be a good idea.
So I read it, not expecting much. At the time–and probably still–Eugenides was best known for The Virgin Suicides. I hadn’t read that. In fact, I’d kind of avoided it. There was something about the title–and I’m pretty sure about the cover–that turned me off. It seemed a bit too sensational. It was a title, I felt, that gracelessly crammed references to sex and death together because that’s what sells.
Which is fine.
Authors and publishers both need to eat.
But I don’t tend to enjoy books with sensational titles. Often they mask a lack of quality–and sometimes integrity–within. I like books that make me think, not ones that appeal to base instincts.
At the risk of getting too far ahead of myself, I eventually did read The Virgin Suicides. It was good. Not nearly as good as Middlesex, but I think it was worth reading. And I stand by my concerns about the title. It’s a book that deserves something more respectful on its cover.
So, yes, I liked Middlesex. In fact, I kind of adored it. It wasn’t just a great novel (though, I have to make clear, it was certainly a great novel). It was fun. It was extremely funny. It was unexpectedly moving.
It is, in a sense, the story of Cal Stephanides, who is born intersex. He’s treated and raised–and identifies early on–as a girl. It’s only as he grows up that certain incongruities make themselves known, and he begins to live life as a man.
Reading that summary will probably cause you to ask questions. Eugenides answers every one of them in artful, respectful, insightful ways.
But it’s more than just Cal’s story. It’s the story of his family, going back generations. It’s a genetic journey through the past, tracing not only who Cal is, but why he is who he is, biologically speaking.
Middlesex becomes, then, also a study of generational evolution. Of family conflict. Of shifting and changing and regressing social mores. It’s the study of a family, sure, but it’s also a study of the many ways in which the world changes around us…and we either accept that, or we don’t. It’s one thing when we go to bed, and we wake up the next day to find that it’s something else.
It’s a story of people, and, to be fair, I found Middlesex the least interesting when it focused on Cal alone, in the present day, recounting his story. But Cal should take that as a compliment; he’s such a compelling narrator that it feels disappointing when he narrows his focus. It’s much more interesting, and rewarding, and engaging to just let him loose his tongue and guide along through the decades.
I enjoyed it immensely. I convinced my girlfriend at the time to read it as well, and she also enjoyed it. We went together to see Jeffrey Eugenides read from it, and we were excited to at least see him and appreciate him from a distance.
We knew what he looked like from his author photo. He was a handsome guy. More handsome than a talented writer should be. (It’s greedy to be both talented and handsome.)
And so we hung around toward the back of the room, waiting for things to get started. I’m not much of a socializer, so my girlfriend and I spoke to each other. We intermittently exchanged pleasantries with other students we knew. At some point I noticed an older man standing next to me. He asked me what time it was. He seemed friendly.
I checked my phone and told him. He asked me if I lived around there. I told him I lived about 20 minutes away. We spoke a bit more. About the weather, maybe. Nothing important.
At one point he said it was nice to meet me, and then got up on stage and read from Middlesex. It was Jeffrey Eugenides, and I had no idea. He was still handsome, don’t get me wrong, but he looked a lot different in person.
I still remember the two passages he read. (It was the baptism scene and the assembly line sequence, if anyone out there cares to know.)
He was a great reader. He invested a lot of himself into the way he presented the text. He made it come alive in ways that my imagination did not…and when it comes to making novels come alive I have a hell of an imagination.
When he was done he signed copies of the book for anyone who brought one. We waited in line. I had my copy of Gravity’s Rainbow with me, which I was reading for the first time, as well. He saw it when it was my turn, and he said, “Talk about a comic epic in prose.” That was how he referred to Middlesex during his reading. It was a nice parallel, and nicer to know that we enjoyed the same author.
He signed my book. I still have it. I forget how or why it came up, but I told him the reason I hadn’t read The Virgin Suicides, and that I intended to now. He looked at me, paused for a moment, and said, “I agree about the title.”
There was an afterparty. I didn’t go. But my professor did, and Jeffrey Eugenides spoke to her. She told me about it the next time I saw her. He told her that I impressed him. I don’t know how or why, but it’s probably the most flattering thing I’ve ever heard.
She told him that I was a writer, and he gave her a piece of advice to pass on to me.
To this day, I remember it. I’ve followed it ever since.
But I don’t want to repeat it. I don’t want to break that connection.
I wouldn’t want to forget his gesture by virtue of finally resolving it.