For some reason, three of the last five books I’ve read have all been the byproduct of Jeffrey Eugenides’ pen. In fact, they’re the only three he’s written – his most recent book, The Marriage Plot, which I read first, for reasons I can’t explain; The Virgin Suicides; and Middlesex, his Pulitzer-Prize winner and the book that I’m currently reading.
The reason I’m writing this post now is because a passage in Middlesex grabbed my interest earlier today. It appears roughly around the novel’s turning point: the birth of its narrator. Callie, our hermaphrodite protagonist, discusses the mourning of her grandmother over her grandfather’s perceived death — he has only, in fact, suffered a stroke, albeit one that silences his voice box forever. Nevertheless, her grandmother is initially destroyed at the prospect of life without her husband and brother (ick). Callie says:
Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’
There, in four sentences, Eugenides wins me over. I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly how I feel about his writing ever since I started The Marriage Plot, and now I think I can fully appreciate his work even if a healthy helping of skepticism still surrounds some of his chosen themes and details. Let’s address those, by the way.
First, the sheer scope of Middlesex. This appears to be Eugenide’s line of thought as he was brainstorming the novel:
“Hermaphrodite narrator? Great! No other big-time American author has tackled that. Hmm…Incestuous family history? Yeah, let’s throw some steamy brother-on-sister action in there for the masses. What if they’re from another country? Sure, why not. That’ll please the Pulitzer people. Plus I can talk about Greece, my dad’s homeland. Wait, but I also like Detroit, where I grew up! OK, I’ll throw that in there also. All I gotta tackle now is race, religion and the small matter of my narrator’s life…”
This line of thinking got Eugenides halfway through Middlesex before he even started discussing Calliope, the main character. Now, no doubt he was thinking a lot more intellectually than I’ve imagined, carefully adding each theme and setting as he stroked his goatee. But you get the idea. There’s a lot there, and even while I spent much of the first half of the book admiring his ability to interweave so many disparate elements, I had a nagging suspicion that he was doing the literary equivalent of a Hail Mary, just tossing up everything he had and hoping the critics, our Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson in this scenario, would snag it.
One of the characteristics that annoys me about great writers is they’re so goddamn self-aware about how good they are. Eugenides is a fantastic writer, but I think that in Middlesex he overextended himself. Maybe it’s because Virgin Suicides was such a small, hyper-focused book, but Middlesex‘s scope is just ridiculously large. And yet, even though I’m slightly annoyed because I think Eugenides is manipulating my conception of how much a story can and should include, I can’t deny that it’s been entertaining reading Middlesex.
Which gets me back to that quote. For me, it sums up the antipathy I feel towards the English language, my only language. I love to write, but it’s so difficult to do so in English without resorting to tawdry cliche or the simply mundane. In large part, that’s why I’m doing this blog – to try to elevate my writing to a higher, funnier, more original level. I doubt I’ll ever approach Eugenides in stature, but just once or twice I hope to create sentences like the one quoted above.