It’s been nearly a decade since the wistful, tender hilarity of ”The Virgin Suicides” brought first-time novelist Jeffrey Eugenides literary fame. That lovely, morbid, funny, and elegant best-seller about a family of teenage sisters who ripen and die on the vines of Michigan suburbia balanced hard-won knowledge of adolescent hysteria with a light, original voice. There were knots of mystery to untangle, but the story itself unfurled in one flowing ribbon of action and consequence.
”Suicides” was told in the first-person-plural voice of the neighborhood boys who grew up with the girls; the narrating ”we” was the spirited but decent, hopeful but bewildered voice of all teens who came of age around the 1970s. And though the ”we” was surely a masculine one, at times a reader could be excused for blinking in momentary gender confusion: Perhaps this ”we” is a girls’-eye view? Everything is so blurry and provisional in adolescence as it is, why not this ever-watchful ”we”?
Nine years later, Eugenides has returned to the Detroit environs of his youth, embracing mutation as the only real constant in the American character. Gender is a muddle. Nationality is a hyphenate. Action and consequence are never limited to a direct line. Only pretending to be straightforward, the author calls his vibrantly strange and heroic second novel Middlesex, after Middlesex Boulevard, a touchstone address in the life of the book’s Greek-American narrator, C. Stephanides.
Nothing is simple in this big-hearted, restless story, not even choosing the right pronoun to describe the protean hero. Cal, born Calliope to first-generation Americans Milton and Tessie Stephanides, is a hermaphrodite raised as a girl who was ”reborn” as a genetic boy in adolescence. He’s now a man of 41, living with a girlfriend in Berlin as he spins his own Greek myth of how a she became a he. And as Cal, or Callie, picks at the locks guarding the genetic secrets of his/her ”Orlando”-like middle sex, Eugenides traces the deviation back by generations, to the time when Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides, escaped the Turkish ransack of Smyrna in 1922, hopped a boat sailing to the Golden Land, and married — even though they were brother and sister.
Examples of survival-minded bending of the laws of nature and heritage appear everywhere. So do expressions of what politicians eagerly call ethnic pride, celebrated with an uncynical delight in all that is different, specific, and stubbornly unassimilated in melting-pot culture. ”Sing, Muse, of Greek ladies and their battle against unsightly hair!” Cal exclaims, as only a man who was once a woman who’s an American who is also a Greek could know. ”When I close my eyes and summon the fond smells of childhood…the aroma that fills, as it were, the nostrils of my memory is the sulfurous, protein-dissolving fetor of Nair.”
Backtracking, detouring, and revisiting, Eugenides is sometimes so eager to tell all he feels and knows that he chomps and races through what he sees. He throws in the rituals of the immigration process through Ellis Island, the terrors of the Detroit race riots of the late 1960s, and the quiet, old-school ethnic bigotry that would have kept the Stephanideses from buying their Grosse Pointe house if they hadn’t paid cash. At some point, there’s the story of ”how my grandmother came to work for the Nation of Islam.” At another point: ”I need to bring up a very embarrassing memory for a Greek American: Michael Dukakis in his tank,” remembering the Greek-American candidate who might have been President were it not for the Democratic mutant gene for screwing up political campaigns.
”Middlesex” is a novel about roots and rootlessness. (The middle-sex, middle-ethnic, middle-American DNA twists are what move Cal to Berlin; the author now lives there too.) But the writing itself is also about mixing things up, grafting flights of descriptive fancy with hunks of conversational dialogue, pausing briefly to sketch passing characters or explain a bit of a bygone world. ”The Virgin Suicides” is all of a piece, contained within the boundaries of one neighborhood; Middlesex — a strange Scheherazade of a book — is all in pieces, as all big family stories are, bursting the boundaries of logic.