Twenty years ago, an epic novel with an unconventional, intersex narrator (and a richly described Detroit backdrop)appeared on bookstore shelves, grabbing readers with this opening hook: “I was 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.”
The book was “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides, and as we mark the anniversary of this landmark book — it won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and a few years later, Oprah’s Book Club delivered the novel into the hands of mainstream America — it’s hard not to view Eugenides as some kind of literary soothsayer.
For while Middlesex is many, many things (a roman à clef, an immigration novel, a nature versus nurture tale, an intergenerational family saga, a contemporary riff on Greek tragedies and myths, etc.), the nucleus that pulls everything together concerns gender — a topic we’re all thinking and talking about an awful lot these days.
Now, I’m not saying Middlesex was the only launching pad for our current conversations around issues like gender-affirming medical care and pronouns. That would be akin to saying that “Will & Grace,” by itself, ushered in the legalization of gay marriage in America. But I think it is fair to say that Eugenides (and “Will & Grace,” to be fair) nudged us toward a future we were, in that moment, only just starting to imagine.
Where did Middlesex come from? Eugenides — a Detroit native who spent his formative years in Grosse Pointe and who now teaches at New York University — has cited the memoirs of Herculine Barbin, a French “hermaphrodite” who lived during the 19th century, as one point of inspiration for Middlesex.
But in order to tell a more contemporary story about a character who lives first as a girl and then as a man, Eugenides used medical language as scaffolding, writing passages that read more like an endocrinology text than a novel.
“5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome allows for normal biosynthesis and peripheral action of testosterone, in utero, neonatally, and at puberty,” Cal, Middlesex’s narrator, explains.
Then, as if Eugenides had a crazy-accurate crystal ball while writing, he hits on precisely the kind of issue that ignites controversy in public forums and legislatures today: “In other words, I operate in society as a man. I use the men’s room. Never the urinals, always the stalls. In the men’s locker room at my gym I even shower, albeit discreetly. I possess all the secondary sex characteristics of a normal man except one: my inability to synthesize dihydrotestosterone has made me immune to baldness.”
This formal language, emphasizing the medical facts of Cal’s condition, seems strategic, as if an expert is holding the reader’s hand while leading them into difficult, uncomfortable terrain. Throw in some myth and Greek tragedy — Cal’s grandparents, who’d been brother and sister, lived in a tiny, isolated village on Mount Olympus (?!), and it’s apparently their subversive union that eventually results in Cal’s sexual ambiguity — and you’ve got a story that somehow feels simultaneously rooted in our world and way, way larger than life. (You’ll notice that despite the book’s blockbuster success, and an announced TV development deal in April 2020, no version has yet to appear on a screen, big or small, suggesting the profound difficulty of tonally pulling all this off in film.)
Despite Middlesex’s myriad awards and acclaim, it has, perhaps inevitably, drawn a bit of criticism since its publication as well. Specifically, the novel’s emphasis on biology, anatomy, and heteronormative attraction as the chief determinants of gender; the association of incest with gender fluidity; and Eugenides’ choice not to speak to intersex people while researching (he wished to create Cal wholly from his imagination) have all been points of discussion.
Yet to my mind, these critiques underline how much our conversation around gender has evolved and grown more sophisticated over the past two decades.
Though not a perfect comparison, “South Pacific” was considered politically progressive when it premiered on stage in 1949, because of the show’s sympathetic depiction of interracial romances. These days, though, this same Rodgers and Hammerstein musical can be a hard watch, largely because it traffics in reductive, insulting cultural stereotypes.
Middlesex will likely never reach that level of cringe, of course, but when thinking about cultural envelope-pushers, we must remember this irony: In order to push us toward a place of more nuanced, enlightened understanding, these works must necessarily set us on a path where, after years of reflection, we look back and can see more clearly their occasional awkwardness, their moments of naivete, their blind spots.
All of which is to say, in order to have a difficult conversation at all, someone must have the courage to put themselves out there and speak first, knowing full well that they probably won’t get everything exactly right, because there’s a lot to unpack.