Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Books: Middlesex, by David Eugenides

I didn't expect this book would be good because everybody reads it. I expected it to be good because I loved The Virgin Suicides, and because gender issues are interesting (if you managed to miss it, despite Oprah's best efforts, it's the epic tale of an intersex narrator, a child raised as a girl who develops facial hair, a too-large clitoris, and no breasts during adolescence, who is painfully attracted to a redheaded girlfriend, and whose parents follow a doctor's recommendation for "corrective" surgery, causing the narrator to run away, hitchhike across the country, and start a new life as a man).

Indeed, this sounds like a fascinating story, with immense opportunities (to both titillate and increase social awareness). But Eugenides gets bogged down in family history; half the book is spent deploying two generations of love stories (repeated incestuous marriages are the reason for the narrator's condition). The lusty, live intensity of The Virgin Suicides—which allows for a total immersion in that 1970s suburban Americana of AM Radio and homemade prom dresses, of teenagers' constant struggling for more, of parents' fear and silence—is exchanged for a sentimental romp across continents, filled with whimsical incidents and cherished traditions.

Accidentally reading Nabokov's Ada (another epic tale of an incestuous love affair) immediately after Middlesex, it's easy to see where Eugenides goes astray—Nabokov goes astray himself in the exact same way. However, the master of childhood sensuality keeps his (obfuscated, unreadable) family history limited to thirty pages, while Eugenides runs on for nearly 300, culminating in a kind of wooden, sexless narrator too estranged not only from his body, but from from his inner self, to engage the reader.*

*Of course, Nabokov's characters are very comfortable in their own gender roles, and so his challenge is smaller (or greater—he writes an as-long novel with only 1/3 of the potential intrigue).

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