by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $27) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., 206- 624-6600, 7:30 p.m. Sat., Oct. 26
JEFFREY EUGENIDES' 1993 breakthrough novel, The Virgin Suicides, was a gorgeous, claustrophobic fugue, a fevered tone poem of adolescent longing and frustration; his sophomore effort, Middlesex, is a sweeping orchestral epic, 532 elaborately conducted pages. If that sounds too grand, well, it's a grand, ambitious book, in some ways far more so than last year's similarly striving Great American Novel entry, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.
Middlesex tells the story—narrated with touches of magic realism in the omniscient first person—of Calliope/Cal Stephanides, "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." Gender identity in flux is not a completely foreign topic to classic literature or popular culture—see Orlando, Madame Butterfly, The Crying Game—but instead of setting his story against the backdrop of a chaotic war or grand royal court, Eugenides traces the history of a single errant, recessive gene, following its trajectory through three generations until it finally comes to dominance in the unlucky body of Calliope/Cal.
Sprung from the seed of a secretly incestuous marriage in early-20th-century Greece, Eugenides' story slides and dips through Ellis Island to Prohibition-era Detroit, '60s and '70s suburban Grosse Pointe, and finally modern Berlin, with a thousand fascinating sidetracks in between. The journey is no less than a full survey of America's 20th century and the immigrant experience—a ponderous, almost laughably ambitious subject.
But Eugenides is a writer of virtuosic talent; even as he takes on the political—the burning of Smyrna, Detroit's 1967 race riots, student Marxism—he never strays too far from the personal. The cast is sprawling and the events tidal, but (echoes of The Virgin Suicides) the author still has the best touch for adolescent longing and heartbreak: His ability to speak from the troubled, anxious heart of a teenage girl/boy is remarkable. If Eugenides was never actually subjected to the cruel social Darwinism of an all-girls Catholic high school—and the even harsher ministrations of teenage beauty rituals—he sure knows how to fake it. The only weak link in the novel may be the adult Cal, who tells the story in retrospect; even as he holds the narrative together, he remains a sort of cipher, so unwilling to let people discover his secret that he keeps out not only the other characters in the book but the reader as well. Still, it's a small quibble. Nearly a decade in the making, Middlesex may just prove a novel for the ages.