Gender Bender--The Literary Mutations of Jeffrey Eugenides
Nine years after bursting onto the literary scene with his best-selling debut novel The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides is back in the spotlight with a remarkable second novel involving a Greek-American family, crossed bloodlines, and a hermaphrodite named Cal.
By Maria Kostaki
A yellow cab swerves around the corner and comes to a halt in front of Barnes and Noble on Manhattan's Union Square. The door swings open and a man's dark brown shoe firmly plants itself on the asphalt. Jeffrey Eugenides emerges, raising his left eyebrow as he looks for me among the crowd assembled in front of the store window displaying his latest book.
We have met to discuss Middlesex, the author's long-awaited second novel, which is already causing quite a stir. His debut novel, about five suicidal, virgin sisters in a small American town (The Virgin Suicides, later made into a movie by Sofia Coppola), catapulted Eugenides into the literary spotlight. He was hailed as one of the most promising young writers in America.
With the appearance of Middlesex, Eugenides has broken his nine-year silence with a roar. He's been featured in Vogue, the Atlantic Monthly, and stamped on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. If Suicides was detached, macabre, and darkly comic, this time Eugenides ventures into equally dangerous waters_through the story of hermaphrodite Calliope Stephanides. The genetic mutation that strikes the fifth chromosome gives birth to a journey of self-discovery unlike any we have known before.
But there's a lot more to Middlesex than rare genetic disorders. Through the omniscient eyes of Cal, Eugenides takes the reader back and forth in time, tracing the origin of the gene that is responsible for Cal's predicament, beginning in 1922 as Cal's grandparents Desdemona and Lefty (who also happen to be brother and sister) flee a burning Smyrna and following them to Detroit, where they begin anew as husband and wife. Lives and stories burst from the pages, blurring the boundaries between male and female, nature and nurture, Greek and American. There is little that Middlesex does not touch upon: prohibition, the 1967 Detroit race riots, the Nation of Islam, the American dream.
We walk through the busy store to the cafe and find a small corner table by the window. Tall and lean, the 42-year-old author sports a perfectly groomed moustache and beard; his proud, upright posture, fleetingly reminds me of a musketeer. Despite a piercing stare, he is initially a little coy, replying to casual questions with distant one-and-two-word answers. But between sips of coffee, he gradually relaxes and allows me a peek into the world behind and beyond Middlesex.
Born and raised in Detroit of the 1960s (his father was a second-generation Greek from Asia Minor and his mother of Anglo-Irish descent), Eugenides grew up witnessing what he refers to as the demise and decay of the American dream and the great American city.
"But we lived in Grosse Point (Detroit) most of my life," he recalls, "and that was in a way the opposite of the tumbling city. It was a protected, affluent, privileged place. But also lots of different people lived there, stationary for many years, and you'd find out about their lives. I've used a lot of that in my work."
Indeed, in Middlesex, the Stephanides family moves into an ultra-modern house outside Detroit where Cal attends a private school and meets "the Object," the girl who who becomes his best friend and catalyst for self-discovery.
The Greek influence on Eugenides' childhood faded quickly. The youngest of three children, he was around only for the last few years of his grandparent's lives.
"When I was very young, our house was full with all of our Greek relatives, mostly on Sunday," he recalls. "They were loud, but there was a certain amount of depression for some reason. Sitting on the couch trying to digest their meals, wishing that they had never left their country. But this was all very boring to an American kid.
"In writing this book there were a lot of Greek things that I had to find out so in a way I came to know my grandparents imaginatively. I found out what they lived through in Asia Minor, which was something that I didn't really know about and they didn't really talk about."
Besides displaying a deep sense of history, Eugenides also sprinkles Middlesex with a lighter spice of Greece_from the silver spoon that Desdemona dangles in front of pregnant Tessie's stomach to determine the sex of the unborn Callie, to spanokopita and humorous references to common Greek woes:
"Sing, Muse, of Greek ladies and their battle against unsightly hair!" Callie exclaims when unruly hairs begin to appear on her upper lip, and unaware that they are the first signs of her masculinity. "When I close my eyes and summon the fond smells of childhood ... the aroma that fills, as it were, the nostrils of my memory is the sulfurous, protein-dissolving fetor of Nair."
Callie apologizes for the Homeric mimics (that's genetic too, she says), but for Eugenides, the technique comes from nurture rather than nature.
"I was obsessed with James Joyce when I was young," Eugenides says, pointing his head behind me, where Joyce's figure looms large on the cafe's wall mural, eavesdropping on our conversation. "I was interested in ethnic and ancient literature and he was modernizing all that stuff, something that I've done a little of in Middlesex."
But the Greek angle is not one he likes to harp on. He uses his heritage because it relates to the story he wants to tell. And he believes the Greek-American experience lends itself well to the mock epic. He once told the online Read magazine: "The distance between the Golden Age of Greece and the everyday life of Greek Americans, between Sapho and souvlaki, is made for comedy."
After graduating from Brown University, and earning a masters in English and creative writing in 1986, Eugenides received a $20,000 fellowship from the Academy of Motion Pictures to write a screenplay based on a short story he had written. Nothing came of his first shot at Hollywood, but the fellowship gave him time to write. Then he got a job as an executive secretary writing newsletters at the Academy of American Poets.
"I didn't worry about publishing too quickly," he says. "Didn't think I'd publish before I was 30. Now everyone wants to publish by 20. But as 30 passed and I hadn't published a novel there was detectable pressure that I could feel, I had to go one way or the other."
The success of The Virgin Suicides allowed more time for writing, and writing for fun_something he'd wanted to do all his life.
"I write because it is the way I think about the world, the way that I organize the chaos that I see into some sort of order that I can understand," he says. "I go through the day, and I see things and I immediately put the things I see into a possible story. Which I may write or may never write but I'll see something and I will think 'what if that guy was in the story or telling the story' and it seems to be like temperament in my character to do that. I enjoy doing it.
"Writing is difficult but in the rare moments when you finally feel you have in front of you something, that gives you a sense of feat, or accomplishment that pervades my life solely. It's rare, and in a way short-lived. It's almost something that recedes in front of you as you pursue it. You never really meet your ambition but it keeps you busy while you're trying to."
The Virgin Suicides was quite a feat to live up to. The book was translated into 15 languages, and earned Eugenides a place in the literary world next to the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody. "By turns lyrical and portentous, ferocious and elegiac, The Virgin Suicides insinuates itself into our minds as a small but powerful opera in the unexpected form of a novel," wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. In 2000, the book was adapted for the silver screen by Sofia Coppola, with Kathleen Turner and Kirsten Dunst is starring roles.
Middlesex took a laborious nine years to produce.
Eugenides rewrote each chapter an average nine times and spent a lot of time buried in library books on Asia Minor, genetics, sexology and the Nation of Islam.
Jonathan Galassi who worked very closely with Eugenides on Middlesex as his editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, explains why Eugenides stands out among the rest:
"What particularly moves and impresses me about Jeff as a writer (and person), is his geniality of spirit_the generosity and 'bigness' of his vision, of his view of his characters and the world," Galassi says. "Unlike most fiction today, his work is not simply crypto-autobiography. It's interested and involved in the world's multiplicity, and pays due and moving reference to it."
To work on Middlesex, Galassi flew to Germany, where Eugenides lives with his family.
"We holed up in a hotel room in Frankfurt, for several days after the Frankfurt Book Fair and went at Middlesex, with time out for museum-going, opera, meals with friends," Galassi recalls. "It was one of the most enjoyable times I've spent with an author_a little odd to be doing it in a foreign country, but intensely interesting and pleasurable. Our conversations_about characters, about what to attack to take on this and that issue, were engrossing and often hilarious. And then Jeff went back to Berlin and in a few weeks the book was delivered in virtually perfect form."
The battle between nature and nurture in shaping who we are has been around for a while and explored by many writers. And it is dominant in Middlesex, with Cal struggling to choose between being raised as a woman while physically being a man.
"I grew up in the 70s when everyone was very pro-nurture. Everyone thought we could live unisex lives." Eugenides explains. "I started from that point, myself. Now we are living in a time where people have gone the other way and think that everything is genetically determined, parents are always telling kids that boys are different than girls which is probably true to a certain extent," he explains. "But I think right now in the popular media the idea that we are genetically determined is a little over-determined. It's much too strong. We have more free will than people think in terms of our genetic destiny.
"And they just did this human genome project, where they thought they'd find 200,000 genes and found 20,000. Not enough genes to make us the way we are. So some other things are coming into place to create us and in that place we have a certain amount of free will."
Middlesex, he says, sits in the middle of the nature and nurture debate, but reminds people that genetics is not something that we can't escape. "That brings in the old Greek idea of fate, Oedipus, all of that, in a more American way where the character escapes fate but to an extent, but not completely."
Eugenides moved to Berlin a few years ago on a fellowship, with Georgia, his four-year-old daughter and his wife of seven years, Karen. He wrote much of the book there.
"It's cheap, we have nice apartment, peaceful, and it's much easier with children, you can get on subway without having to break down the gate," he says. "I liked being away from New York to write this book, it gave me the solitude that I needed."
Eugenides' next project is a short non-fiction book about writers living in Berlin, which he hopes to finish by next June. But his main job these days is raising his daughter: "A lot of what I'm going to do is going to be about her," he says, gleaming. The family is planning on making the move back home, although unsure of the exact destination.
A week after Eugenides left me on Union Square to run to another interview, I returned to the table in the Barnes and Noble cafe, sat down and glanced up at James Joyce. In the store window, Middlesex had been replaced by a new release and Eugenides was no longer sitting across from me, but echoes of his last words still lingered in my mind:
"Literature is the thing that makes me wake up out of the sleep I am in on most days. When I read a writer who I think is great I feel closer to an intelligence and aliveness, vividness that I don't always have. That's what I read for and that's what I try to write for. To concentrate the scattered effects of running around a city like New York and turn them into sort of a high-feed juice for the reader so they can wake up and experience being alive."