Sunday, April 13, 2014
Middlesex: Two (Sucky) Novels in One
That prettymuch sums up Middlesex, the giant mess of a novel Jeffrey Eugenides (our man Jeff!) put out between the Ode to Obsession that was The Virgin Suicides, and the I-Want-A-Cookie tantrum that was The Marriage Plot.
Middlesex is the story of hardship and woe that is the immigrant Greek experience. The sad story of eviction, destruction, exile, belonging, and rebuilding. It's like a Greek version of Gone With The Wind, except with a less than compelling love story, and fewer feisty heroines. (Disclosure: I never read Gone With The Wind. I only saw the movie. But still.)
Middlesex is the story of an intersexed man named Cal, who tells the story of how he was brought up as a girl named Calliope, or Callie for short. His is a story of discovery of self. A bildungsroman, if you will.
Middlesex is both those books, and neither is particularly good. When shmooshed together in a kind of black-and-white cookie of a novel, they're even worse.
I know Jeff was trying to be clever in creating a book that is two things at once, like Cal, the narrator and (kinda) protagonist of the book because he said so in a longwinded interview he gave to a fawning journalist. But really, if he needs to tell you that, then he has screwed up the execution. It should be obvious by reading the book that that's what the book is.
Anyways, I probably could have overlooked all of this had the writing been any good, but the writing was amateurish and ham-handed, and the book was duller than one of those chapters Dickens wrote because he had to.
And yet Jeff won a Pulitzer Prize for this mess.
Anyways, in that same longwinded interview with the fawning journalist, Jeff said that he wanted Middlesex to be critiqued for the book it is, rather than for the book people wished it were. If this were the book I wished it were, this would be a much shorter blog entry. This would also be a blog entry where I'd say, "OMG! This book was awesome and it truly captured the gender confusion that comes from being raised as a girl and then being told at puberty that you're really a boy!"
However, this is not the book it is. The book Middlesex is is not a very good book.
For all of the research Jeff put into writing Novel #1 about the Greek Immigrant Experience - let's call it "Jeff: A Fictionalized Family History of my Dad's Side of The Family" ("Jeff: AFFH") - he really didn't put much effort into finding out what it meant to live as a girl in a traditional Greek family in the late 60s and early 70s.
In Jeff:AFFH, which takes up the bulk of the book entitled "Middlesex", Cal tells us about how his grandparents ended up in Detroit. He tells of how they left their tiny town, headed for Smyrna just in time to watch it burn down, and got on a boat headed for America.
Cal, our first person narrator, seems to know every detail about what happened to his (incestuous) grandparents, right down to their innermost thoughts and feelings for each other - innermost thoughts and feelings that his grandparents never shared with the rest of the family. Ever.
Cal also knows the details of the life of family friend, family physician, and co-refugee of Cal's grandparents, Dr Philobosian (the token Armenian for the sake of acknowledging the Armenian genocide).
It's very interesting that Cal knows the details of Dr Philobosian's history because Cal admits that Dr Philobosian never told anyone about what happened to his family. In fact, Cal doesn't just know the general outline of what happened to Dr Philobosian's family; he knows the gory details!
Cal knows that Dr Philobosian had gone out during the sacking of Smyrna and came home to his entire family slaughtered - including his daughter's who'd been violated and maimed.
How the fuck could Cal know this if Dr Philobosian never told anyone, not even Cal's grandparents?
Well, in the longwinded interview with the fawning journalist, Jeff claimed that it's obvious that sometimes Cal is making shit up because there's no way he could know the things he's recounting.
And to that I say, "whatever".
Cal's narration is not written in the style of someone who is taking liberties with the truth. I think Cal says at some point that he will be filling in the gaps with his own imaginings, but his narration is not actually written that way.
Cal's narration is written with certainty and clarity. There is no indication that any of it is made up. There's no wink to the reader. No, "I can only imagine why Dr Philobosian threw himself into the frigid waters in the port of Smyrna." No, instead it's a very certain "this is why he did it."
But let's, for the sake of argument, assume that Cal is making this shit up and this is his flight of fancy. Why the fuck would he invent such a gruesome death for Dr Philobosian's family, and especially his young daughters?
Actually, let's step back a minute and think about the decision Jeff made when he wrote that in.
Authors make choices. It's true that their characters have to ring true and be true to themselves, but authors can choose what they're going to do with a narrative.
In the case of showing that war is hell, an author can choose for the humble doctor to be attending to all kinds of emergencies all night as the invading army destroys his city. Each time he shows up to a call, though, he either finds dead people, or people so badly off that he can't possibly help them. Maybe at some point he's in a house at the same time as the soldiers and witnesses them murder some people. The doctor manages to escape from the house, but he's so scared that he immediately runs off to the port to escape the city, abandoning his family to whatever awful fate awaits them. He gets to the port, but he's consumed by guilt. He throws himself into the water hoping to die, only to be rescued by a Greek couple who are also fleeing. He wishes they hadn't saved him. His guilt gnaws at him his whole life, and even informs his behaviour as a physician once he gets to the US.
On the other hand, the author can be cheap and do what every made-for-TV movie, pulp novel, comic book, and cheap video game does, and have the doctor find his wife and daughters raped, and the entire family murdered. Basically, introducing a whole set of characters for the sake of killing them off to provide a motivation for the doctor.
I can just see some dumbass editor saying "this is so powerful" as they read this part of the book, insisting that it be kept in even though Dr Philobosian's story prettymuch begins and ends right there.
Sure Dr Philobosian tags along with Cal's grandparents to Detroit and becomes their family physician, but for the rest of Jeff: AFFH he's just some background character mentioned in passing. There really was no point in giving him this backstory. He was just there to show that war is hell, and that there was an Armenian genocide.
The rest of Jeff:AFFH is duller than dirt. It just outlines the establishment of businesses, the purchase of houses and Cadillacs, and the forceful entry of the family into middle class American society. It doesn't really go anywhere, and it isn't really told with enough depth to allow the reader to get invested in the plight of these characters.
And, on top of it all, Jeff channels his inner M. Night Shyamalan and throws in a twist or two. Unlike M. Night Shyamalan twists, though, these twists are entirely pointless. So let's move on to the second novel, Cal: The Dude with Ambiguous Genitalia ("Cal:TDAG").
The only thing good I can say about Cal:TDAG is that at least the writing wasn't as flabby as it was in Jeff:AFFH.
As someone who writes technical documents no one reads, I'm not actually allowed to call myself a writer. However, there's an art to writing good technical documents. If you want your document to be readable and usable, the writing has to be tight. That means that after you've written the document, you have to make the world's most boring edits: removing passive language; removing adverbs; removing unnecessary words; removing unnecessary information.
I spend my work days making sure that you can't pinch an inch on my writing, so I feel insulted to come home to the rolling mounds of flab that is Middlesex. Every paragraph in the book could have been trimmed and made about 1/3 as long.
I understand that Cal is supposedly the one "writing" this book, and he's in love with his own voice, but just because your narrator/writer is a bad writer, doesn't mean you have to let them take over your novel. Unless (a) you didn't realize this was happening, or (b) you actually don't think that this person is a bad writer.
Which brings me to the same problem I had with The Marriage Plot: does Jeff know what he's done? Does Jeff know that Cal is an asshole? Does Jeff know that Cal can't write? Did Jeff do this on purpose, or was this an accident? Or, more scarily, did Jeff not realize at all that Cal is an asshole who can't write?
I have no idea.
In any case, the novel picks up its pace in Cal:TDAG. It gets a little tighter, and becomes slightly less boring.
Unfortunately, Cal:TDAG is about as believable as Letters to Penthouse.
Jeff has apparently been grossly misinformed about what it means to be brought up as a girl. He appears to think that girls growing up in Greek families in the 1970s had perfectly idyllic existences, except for having to have their body and facial hair removed. Girls raised in nice Greek families never wondered why they had to set the table while their brothers got to watch TV. They never felt that hot sense of inequality as they watched their freedom slowly disappear as they got older, while the opposite happened to their brothers.
This was not on their mind. All they really noticed was that they needed to get waxed.
Maybe Cal doesn't remember resenting his brother. I mean, that's possible, right? I mean, just because he can recount his (possibly fictionalized?) family history in glorious detail doesn't mean he can remember his own story? Right?
Though Cal does remember that he felt that his brother getting drafted into the army was sexist. Because that's really the heart of sexism right there.
Did I not mention that Cal has a brother? He's referred to as "Chapter Eleven" for the entirety of the book with no mention as to why.
Because apparently Cal knows all and reveals all, except that.
So we have Callie learning to be a woman by going to get waxed, and it seems that Jeff has also been misinformed about what a waxing salon is like. He seems to believe that women lie naked on beds in a communal room as they are being waxed.
This is not true except in letters to Penthouse or maybe in Lesbian porn made for heterosexual males.
Jeff apparently also learned about girls' locker rooms from teen movies from the 1980s. In real life, though, girls in high school locker rooms do not walk around completely naked. They usually hide behind towels and curtains. Most girls learn how to change clothes without ever exposing their breasts or vulvas to the world. It's a skill women use forever, actually. It comes in handy at the gym, or when you have to participate in the office squash tournament.
And, finally, SWEET CHEESUS ON A CHEESESTICK, JEFF, OBVIOUSLY CALLIE WOULD HAVE FELT WEIRD ABOUT CRUSHING ON A GIRL! Prior to, say, the past five years or so, there has been no time in history when a girl would crush on another girl and not worry that she wasn't normal. There were after-school specials, Very Special Episodes of sitcoms, and scenes in teen movies about this very topic because IT WAS CONSIDERED SOMEWHAT OFF-NORM!
But none of this matters because Callie's really a boy.
All the sexual ambiguity Callie experiences gets wrapped up nicely by the reveal that Callie is in reality a straight dude. Lucky for him. And lucky for Jeff because he would have been in big trouble had Callie expressed an interest in boys. I don't think Jeff would have been able to write through that. His brain would have exploded if he had to move away from his own reality.
Now, as for the matter of the gender ambiguity, apparently that isn't really an issue either. Cal realizes he's a boy and presto he's a boy! He gets a haircut, buys a suit, learns to swagger, and voilà: instant boy!
It doesn't matter that he's been a girl his whole life. No! He's a boy! He likes girls. He… I don't know what he does. But he definitely is a boy. He knows he's a boy because a piece of paper said he was a boy. He never doubts that maybe the doctor is full of shit. He never thinks, "OMG! How can I be a boy? I like dresses! I'm bad at sports!" Nope. He just runs away from home to become a boy.
And once he is reunited with his family, they're totally cool with his transformation.
I'm guessing that what Jeff meant that people shouldn't judge the book for what it isn't, is that they shouldn't say, "In real life this would never have happened", but accept that the family accepted Cal's change.
I could have accepted it, you know, if it had been covered in more than a couple of paragraphs. I could not accept it, though, as it was written. It was just glossed over, and brushed aside, like Jeff had no idea how this would even play out. The scenes between Cal and his brother especially feel lazy. I can accept that Cal's brother would accept Cal, but I need more than a single stilted conversation.
The writing in Cal:TDAG was so lazy at the end that I didn't care about Cal or his family.
All I actually cared about was why Chapter Eleven was called "Chapter Eleven".