annotation by Diane Sherlock
The most surprising thing about Middlesex is not the titillating subject matter, but the reportorial voice, that, despite strained Homeric outbursts, is often flat. The narration is too often a series of platitudes strung together in an entertaining narrative lacking depth or insight. The author stays on the surface of his subject, offering only conventional, even stereotypical, observations about sex and gender.
There is little sense of understanding of many of these characters. One of the great oversights of the book is that the author apparently has never changed a diaper or cared for a baby. He accounts for the doctor overlooking genital abnormality, but not for any of the (most likely) women who would have changed Callie’s diaper. In an extended family as described, the chances are very good that several of the women would have helped out with the baby at a time when cloth diapers made the changing process longer than with modern paper diapers and wipes. It strains credibility that no family member would have noticed something unusual in the baby’s anatomy in hundreds of times wiping and bathing. Also, the significance of Desdemona’s sobbing promise to her mother at her mother’s death to take care of her brother and find him a wife, “I promise, I promise!” does not seem to trouble her as the affair with her brother and its attendant rationalizations unfold. Though technically she does fulfill her promise, the apparent ease with which she overcomes her reservations seems counter to the traditional Greek society that the author has constructed.
The voices of the characters are captured well, as are details such as Lefty’s singing in English without understanding the words. “It spoke to Lefty of jazz-age frivolity, gin cocktails, cigarette girls; it made him slick his hair with panache…” The burning of Smyrna is vivid: “The heat precedes the fire” as are the details of life in Grosse Pointe, “The trees were what I noticed first.” Grosse Pointe appears to be where the author is most comfortable and one of the strongest sections of the book deals with Callie’s relationship with the Object as s/he sorts out feelings and urges.
In addition to the facile cleverness, there is the problem of the structure of the book. It starts off in a promising way and the story of Cal’s life is laid out in the second paragraph. There will not be a lot of surprises; the main tension of the book arises from how Cal will make the jump from female to male and what the consequences might be. Unfortunately, this means the tank in San Francisco then becomes the overriding metaphor for the book. The focus is too much on the revelation of unusual anatomy and its freak show overtones instead of a powerful exploration of what it means to be a man or a woman and the territory between the two. Sexuality is likely fluid for most of us early on (and remains so for many), but the author does not take the opportunity to explore this in any depth.
Overall, the book feels unbalanced. For example, from the very beginning, Desdemona is a vital character and even though she fades away after her husband/brother’s death, it seems like it would have been a stronger choice to end the book with her death rather than Milton’s. Since the main character never fulfills Tiresias’ prophetic role, it would have been natural to either give Desdemona a stronger prophetic voice besides the spoon and occasional jeremiad or the voice of a Greek chorus from her sickbed.
We do not know much more about who the main character is by the end of the book. Details about his growth as a person rather than anatomical details could have added poignancy to his budding affair with Julie. Instead, it is just another curiosity, not unlike his performance in the tank in San Francisco. There is little besides wardrobe that changes from the moment Cal lives as a man and some twenty years later when he has made his fortune, evidenced by expensive clothes with his “handmade cordovans by Edward Green” that go for about a thousand dollars a pair (is Cal on the take to make that kind of coin?). He is defined primarily by what he is not: “And I happen not to be a political person. I don’t like groups. Though I am a member of the Intersex Society of America, I have never taken part in its demonstrations.” The author never gives us enough of who Cal is, as a State Department employee, as a man, or as a hermaphrodite in his thirties and early forties. The result is a novel that is entertaining in its uneven way, but not moving.