Reporting on Middlesex

Thanks in advance for the three reviews from away. Much appreciated and very thorough and well expressed.

I speak to the additional comments rendered tonight by a solid 5 members.
The overwhelming impression in both advance and at the meet was to the length of Middlesex. This is not a novella nor a short read. It’s full of deep description and a thick narrative streams. Two members shared that they had not yet completed the novel and so rendered incomplete evaluations – challenged by the length.

However, I think all tonight agreed that Middlesex is very well constructed, and related with an expression that asks whether the book is autobiographical – it’s not – but the quality of expression leads the reader to appreciate the quality of such. Eugenides clearly has a rare and unique skill. There was a superb sense of construction but questions about whether he luxuriated in his one prose at times.

One correspondent felt that there was an odd tone to reactions to some of the historical events – a somewhat blasé approach to rather extreme circumstances – but as another aptly noted: ‘given its length, we should be thankful for the lightness of tone’ – and that is much of the device. Moreover, this was felt to stem from the scale at which they were observed – as individual circumstances and experiences that presented a diminished frame of reference but one that was far more evocative and personal – both in Smyrna or Detroit during the riots.

J made a very interesting observation that the perhaps it was a better book in 2002 than 2018. He felt that aspects of explanation around intersexuality and having to stage discussion of topics dated the novel somewhat – an observation around how much western society has changed even in a decade and a half.

There were some lingering questions about the inclusion of some events such as the thread around the brush with the early Nation of Islam that didn’t seem to advance the plot noticeably – did we need to meet Jimmy Zismo again? Although it possibly helped appreciate the sense of black identity during the period, it seemed an overly elaborate contrivance.

The lingering questions raised by BM re lesbianism and also around incest as a ‘cause’ of hermaphroditism gained some discussion and a sense that perhaps there was some ambiguity in expression around the cause versus the creation of circumstances being favourable to the possibility of. The genetic nature I think was straightforward and not overly distracted by the need for the narrative device – issues dealt with towards the end of the novel and so not voiced too loudly at the meeting tonight to spoil anything for those still reading.

The shifting of third -person / first person narrative was addressed and seen as skilful as was the movement back and forth in time, with little loss of narrative momentum.

I admitted (for what its worth) that I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading the novel and felt that in two and half years time it actually was as much appreciated the second time around. I had a sense of a really solid and well-told tale – generous in colour and ambition, very satisfying. I had forgotten much of the detail remembering more of the milestone aspects and so was entertained the second time around as much as the first. Thoroughly satisfying.

Our absent reviewers presented some great aspects. J2’s evaluation system, in particular, will inform M’s subcommittee on grading criteria – draft discussion document to be tabled towards the summer :-)

So…the scores on the board:

M: 6.0 (pending), J: 7.0, S: 8.5 (marks for being so good second time around), F: 7.0, D: 7.5, BC: 8, BM: 7.0 and J2: 7.0 for an average of 7.25.

We had an extensive set of nominees for our Non-Fiction March read:
J: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
M: Russia’s Dead End by Andrei A Kovalev,
M: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson
D: Ascent of Gravity by Marcus Chown,
D: Operation Columba–The Secret Pigeon Service: The Untold Story of World War II Resistance in Europe by Gordon Corera
D: With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix
S: the Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of An Empire by Kyle Harper
And with a 3,2,1 awarding of points (Joe I did attempt to present Pinker with as much background as I could quickly amass)…

Our March read is:
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson.

Thanks to J2 for recommending Middlesex. I would not have ever expected to have been re-reading but was very glad I did.

Notes from BC:

I feel that too much was covered in the novel, it could have been broken into 3 different novels each with its own meme. (not sure it that’s the right term). It’s content certainly challenge our “normal” view of life and relationships which was good. I also chuckled a few times with turn of words used and in general really enjoyed the writing

Notes from BM:

It was certainly an absorbing read, if a bit long-winded and verbose in style.

The narrative structure is intriguing (a characteristic also of Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides), the way it switches between the first- and third-person narrators. But the gender switches don’t lead to different modes of expression and the creation of male and female in one character is convincing. It’s as if the mobile identification becomes a feature of the narrative method (e.g., Cal’s able to give details about his father’s last minutes as he died in the car accident – although he wasn’t there). Of course, there are some things he couldn’t possibly know and so relies on his imagination.

We have an eclectic mix of genres: saga, epic, socio-historical, Bildungsroman, comic, tragic, with elements of the picaresque.

A lot of the novel is concerned with identity: what it is to be male and female, to be an immigrant and to become integrated, to fulfil various social roles, to pursue the so-called “American Dream” etc. The issue of the Detroit riots of 1967 is interesting in this regard – the ongoing oppression of the African-Americans is not understood by the Greek-Americans who have escaped the oppression they initially faced when they arrived in America. They show the typical white racial prejudice. It’s interesting that when Cal moves to Berlin s/he lives with Turks, whose ancestors killed his in Smyrna.

Nature versus nurture is another major concern of the novel. Cal says his/her own life is the perfect experiment to measure the relative influences of each. The novel probably concludes that a person’s traits are due to a mix of influences and not solely to one or the other.

Some reservations:

  1. An anti-lesbian novel?
  2. Incest as a cause of hermaphroditism?
  3. Cal-Julie relationship underdeveloped – ending a bit rushed?

A few novels rolled into one (as Brian C pointed out)? Could be considered a novel of two halves (hermaphrodites for first half and Greeks for second).

And from J2:

Not sure what I expected from this book – except perhaps something special since it came so warmly recommended – so very much left in two minds about it.

On the plus side, I liked the language, the style, the way it was written: studied, scholarly even, but without being wordy or overblown or openly parading its learning. I liked the gentle humour, the affectionate poking of fun at various characters (both human characters and national/religious/gender characters – a drawing that never descended into caricature or stereotype) and the feeling at the end that I had been told a complete and rounded story, with a beginning, a middle and an end in a nicely-balanced way.

On the minus, I did feel sometimes that the settings, the situations were perhaps not quite contrived, but perhaps too easily (lazily?) produced to add some life/hard edge/excitement/something-to-talk-about to the story: genocide – tick; forced emigration – tick; immigrant culture shock – tick; US prohibition – tick. And perhaps a little too much of the deus-ex-machina about the hero/ine’s deliverance towards the end.

Did I find it an easy read? No

Was I glad I read it? Yes

Did I enjoy reading it? Possibly more than I realise

Would I recommend it now? Yes, probably

Would I read it again? Probably not (at least not with so much else demanding my attention)


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