Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, October 16, 2018

‘Middlesex’ observes family unit through intersex lens

“Meehdlesex? What ees Meehdlesex?” This is the question I was asked one day at work when I left the book I was reading out on the register. I had taken the plunge to read “Middlesex,” a 500-plus page behemoth, for two reasons. First, I couldn’t possibly read “The Virgin Suicides” one more time. “Suicides” and “Middlesex” are author Jeffrey Eugenides’ only two novels, and the latter had always seemed too daunting. Which brings me to my second reason: HBO is adapting the novel into a miniseries produced by Rita Wilson and writer Donald Magulies.

Anyway, my manager was standing at the register giving me a sideways glance as I explained that “Middlesex” was both the novel’s title and setting. He did not seem to believe me. Giving me a grin, he persists, “So Meehdlesex, it has no meaning in English?” I am confused at this point. I think to myself, “Does ‘Middlesex’ have any specific translation? Any origin that I should be aware of? Why is he being so coy about this? Was I doing something wrong by reading at wo... — oh my god he thinks it’s porn.”

“Middlesex” is not about this at all.

Originally published in 2002, HBO is now using the novel as the basis for a new show for the network. Despite the fact that the Pulitzer Prize-winning book was released eight years ago, the impact of its content is still timely for today’s viewers. The sophomore work of Eugenides, “Middlesex” is about a lot of things. To some readers, “Middlesex” is about family dynamics. To others, it’s about secrets and alienation. Some read it as a tale of immigrant assimilation into American culture, while others feel that its most important social message regards the construction of gender and the silence of the intersex community. Essentially, “Middlesex” is a story of growing up intersex in the 1970s as part of the third generation of a highly inbred Greek family. Basically, it’s complicated.

“Middlesex” is based loosely on the events of Eugenides’ life and was written after he read the “Memoirs of Herculine Barbin” and was unsatisfied with the work’s lacking discussion of the emotions that are tied to being intersex. Cal, the narrator of Eugenides’ incredibly in-depth story, takes the reader on a beautifully detailed journey of his grandparents’ immigration, his parents’ romance and his own childhood — living as a girl until the age of 14 — with the tragedy and bravado of an epic Greek allegory played out on the streets of Detroit.

As a narrator, Cal is patient and omniscient, privy to the thoughts, feelings and twisted motivations of his ancestors, explaining their triumphs and tragedies since before even his own birth. But this is more than just the narrative of a family line — it is one family experiencing almost a century of history. From the Turkish invasion of Greece to the race riots in America, Eugenides does an outstanding job of working the lives of a fictional family into the context of real history. He weaves truth with emotional connection and consequence with such skill that the reader almost insists that he or she is reliving the narrator’s own personal experience.

In addition to being startlingly relevant (I bet you never thought you’d be able to relate so closely to a third-generation intersex ex-pat living in Berlin), the novel is also clever and hilarious but mostly in a subtle, nuanced fashion. Eugenides’ humor reveals itself through his attention to detail, pointing out subtleties that echo true life so loudly and accurately that one can’t help but laugh at the starkness of the truth.

So it turns out that when I said that “Middlesex” meant nothing, I was lying. Actually, what I meant was that “Middlesex” means everything. It might even be the Great American Novel. Not because of any tried-and-true formulaic narrative about how hard work brings success or about the triumph of the individual, but instead because “Middlesex,” in the realist sense, is about what it’s like to be an American. It represents the struggle it takes to be not someone but anyone — frustrated, lost and searching for any identity while coping with the realization that the American Dream is an illusion that has long since passed.

And who better to capture that than HBO? This is the company that told the uncharted stories of the lives of polyamorous Mormons in “Big Love,” explored the concepts of death and change with “Six Feet Under” and presented women’s sexuality in an empowered and unabashed way with “Sex and the City.” HBO thrusts into the spotlight the underbelly of culture, not only the storylines, but also the lives of the people we rarely consider. The network does so with unbridled creativity, outstanding originality and an unapologetic nature that prevents it from ever having to shy away from anything new or controversial.

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