Tuesday, 01 December 2009
GAY AND GRAY: Middlesex
[EDITORIAL NOTE: At 3PM today, eastern U.S. time, Senator Herb Kohl, who is the chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, will hold a live panel discussion and briefing about how the Senate Health Care Reform bill will benefit elders.
Panelists will include representatives from Consumers Union, AARP, The Medicare Rights Center and The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long Term Care. You can watch live at http://www.aging.senate.gov. A checklist of elder benefits in the Senate bill, compiled by the Alliance for Retired Americans, is here (pdf).]
Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams (bio) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here, and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here.]
This month for a Gay and Gray column, I thought I'd share my reactions to an enormous (529 pages) novel that I think might be especially interesting to folks at this blog. The book is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. It explores two themes - gender-identity fluidity and immigrant family history in our cities - both of great interest to me and perhaps to you.
The narrator and central character, "Cal" Stephanides, nee Calliope, was born a pseudo-hermaphrodite. At birth, his genitals approximated female appearance but at puberty, his underlying male hormonal balance took over.
Though the particular form of intersexual genetic variation Eugenides works with here is extremely rare, various forms of intersexuality are not nearly so uncommon as we have been led to think. More here if you are interested.
Most intersexual persons have been "corrected" surgically soon after birth and then live out whatever complications of social and hormonal gender identity that leaves them with. They aren't "gay" but occupy a similar "outsider" social space.
In the novel, Cal/Calliope's predicament is that she was a contented "girl" until she turned out to be a boy! Her father desperately wanted a girl and for 12 years he pretty much got one. Then Calliope understands that her body is not developing like those of her classmates and she develops an intense crush on one of her female classmates.
Having myself endured that phase of life in a girls' school not so different from Calliope's, I found her account of her relationship with the object of her desire both plausible - and a little over-gentle. I am certain that other girls would have tormented the pair as "queers." Girls knew that insult in my high school years and certainly would have been even more aware of that possibility ten years later in Cal/Calliope's time, the mid-1970s.
I found one other false note in the coming of age segment of Cal/Calliope's story: Cal speculates that Calliope knew her girl friend's brother was attempting a clumsy seduction (verging on forced sex) because in truth she (Calliope) was a "he." Come on, Eugenides -- sexual pressure is not something only men understand or practice.
There's sometimes an essentialism in the author's approach to gender identities that doesn't ring quite true to me. He makes up for his lapses with his very funny takedown of a fatuous medical sexologist more interested in his professional standing than his patient Cal's emotional needs.
As a San Franciscan, I enjoyed the picture of the commercial sex scene in this city in 1970s, a gender-bending freak show where Cal finds the space to explore his identity.
But what really gripped me in this novel was not the gender theme, but the sprawling family epic. This story begins with the narrator's grandparents' early life in an isolated Greek village in Asia Minor, moves on to their escape from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's fiery massacre of Armenians and Greeks at Smyrna in 1922, and on to the white-immigrant Detroit of the 1920s and 30s. Cal's grandfather works a stint at the Ford Motor Company River Rouge assembly plant; Eugenides captures the sound and feel of the unceasing production line in several riveting pages punctuated with the Whitman-esque repeating refrain:
Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O'Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft.
The story moves on through the Greek immigrants' confrontation with Prohibition, with Detroit's black ghetto, through the melting pot experience of immigrant men serving in World War II and their move to the suburbs to escape the racially-divided city while Cal's father is becoming a hot dog stand magnate.
Having grown up in Buffalo, another energetic immigrant industrial city become a rustbelt shell in the same time frame, I easily recognized all scenes and loved the descriptions. Eugenides is a brilliant, informed narrator of the texture of his characters' lives. I think many of us who lived much of this time period and had parents who lived even more might enjoy immersing themselves in this complex, very American novel.
I "read" Eugenides' novel in an audiobook edition from audible.com and strongly recommend this. There's much poetry in this that comes across well in spoken form. Sometimes audio editions are available from public libraries. I find this a great way to read long books.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jeanne Waite Follett: Flying with Egrets