Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex novel is on the mysterious convenience of biology, on Detroit in the 60s, and the doubts, regrets, and triumphs of love.
“What time did you go to bed last night?” asked P, who is always concerned about my crazy sleeping habits, which he thinks detrimental to my health, health-conscious as he is.
“Hmm. Four, I guess?” I answered. There is no point in lying because he could easily see them through my eyebags and constant yawns.
“Thought you didn’t like it.”
“Yeah, I didn’t like the first five pages.”
I found Jeffrey Eugenides’ introduction too wordy at first—an excessive give-away of the whole narrative. But I later understood the intention of his main character—to be honest at the very onset, thus the surprising, beguiling opening line:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
I found myself reaching for the book on the writing table—just inches above my head—the moment I opened my eyes in the morning.
There is so much to love: the language, the wit, the seeming ordinariness of the language, the mysterious convenience of biology, the depth and breadth of the knowledge it contained, the liveliness of Detroit in the 1960s, and the doubts, regrets, and, yes, triumphs of love.
“I hadn’t gotten old enough yet to realize that living sends a person not into the future but back into the past, to childhood and before birth, finally, to commune with the dead. You get older, you puff on the stairs, you enter the body of your father. From there it’s only a quick jump to your grandparents, and then before you know it you’re time traveling. In this life we grow backwards.”
For Cal to understand his biological mutation, he traced back the story of his cocoonery-owning grandparents in Greece before they migrated to Detroit, Michigan, the courtship of his parents, and his version of their stories and his. The story encompasses three generations worth of stories.
Here are some noteworthy Middlesex quotes, which I deceptively categorized. Some of them might be miscategorized, but I’m certain all of them can be categorized as life.
Mr. da Silva had a relevant quotation for everything that happened to him and in this way evaded real life. Instead of eating his lunch, he told you what Oblonsky and Levin had for lunch in Anna Karenina. Or, describing a sunset from Daniel Deronda, he failed to notice the one that was presently falling over Michigan.
Historical fact: People stopped being people in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we’ve all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joy-sticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds.
I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand different matters, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair-cut and getting born. And in some houses people were getting old and sick and were dying, leaving others to grieve. It was happening all the time, unnoticed, and it was the thing that really mattered. What really mattered in life, what gave it weight, was death.
That’s how people live, by telling stories. What’s the first thing a kid says when he learns how to talk? “Tell me a story.” That’s how we understand who we are, where we come from. Stories are everything.
I was beginning to understand something about normality. Normality wasn’t normal. It couldn’t be. If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself. But people-and especially doctors- had doubts about normality. They weren’t sure normality was up the job. And so they felt inclined to give it a boost.
Planning is for the world’s great cities, for Paris, London, and Rome, for cities dedicated, at some level, to culture. Detroit, on the other hand, was an American city and therefore dedicated to money, and so design had given way to expediency.
Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.
Regret, already sogging me down, burst its dam. It seeped into my legs, it pooled in my heart.
She understood that her heart operated on its own instructions, that she had no control over it or, indeed, anything else.”
I’d never been this close to the Obscure Object before. It was hard on my organism. My nervous system launched into “Flight of the Bumblebee.” The violins were sawing away in my spine. The timpani were banging in my chest. At the same time, trying to conceal all this, I didn’t move a muscle. I hardly breathed. That was the deal basically: catatonia without; frenzy within.
But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born.
Ecstasy. From the Greek Ekstasis. Meaning not what you think. Meaning not euphoria or sexual climax or even happiness. Meaning, literally: a state of displacement, of being driven out of one’s senses.
Women know what it means to have a body. They understand its difficulties and frailties, its glories and pleasures. Men think their bodies are theirs alone. They tend them in private, even in public.
Pregnancy humbles husbands. After an initial rush of male pride they quickly recognize the minor role that nature had assigned them in the drama of reproduction.
When you travel like I did, vague about destination and with an open-ended itinerary, a holy-seeming openness takes over your character. It’s the reason the first philosophers were peripatetic.
Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.
But what humans forget, cells remember. The body, that elephant.
We’re all made up of many parts, other halves. Not just me.
It was called evolutionary biology. Under its sway, the sexes were separated again, men into hunters and women into gatherers. Nurture no longer formed us; nature did. Impulses of hominids dating from 20,000 B.C. were still controlling us. And so today on television and in magazines you get the current simplifications. Why can’t men communicate? (Because they had to be quiet on the hunt.) Why do women communicate so well? (Because they had to call out to one another where the fruits and berries were.) Why can men never find things around the house? (Because they have a narrow field of vision, useful in tracking prey.) Why can women find things so easily? (Because in protecting the nest they were used to scanning a wide field.) Why can’t women parallel-park? (Because low testosterone inhibits spatial ability.) Why won’t men ask for directions? (Because asking for directions is a sign of weakness, and hunters never show weakness.) This is where we are today. Men and women, tired of being the same, want to be different again.
Whereas my grandfather was getting used to a much more terrifying reality. Holding my hand to keep his balance, as trees and bushes made strange, sliding movements in his peripheral vision, Lefty was confronting the possibility that consciousness was a biological accident. Though he’d never been religious, he realized now that he’d always believed in the soul, in a force of personality that survived death. But as his mind continued to waver, to short-circuit, he finally arrived at the cold-eyed conclusion, so at odds with his youthful cheerfulness, that the brain was just an organ like any other and that when it failed he would be no more.
Life started out one thing and then suddenly turned a corner and became something else.
The essential matrimonial facts: that to be happy you have to find variety in repetition; that to go forward you have to come back to where you begin.
The television replaced the sound of conversation that was missing from my grandparents’ lives.
It was amazing how it worked: the tiniest bit of truth made credible the greatest lies.
The mind self-edits. The mind airbrushes. It’s a different thing to be inside a body than outside. From outside, you can look, inspect, compare. From inside there is no comparison.
*This will be updated.