What’s It About: Cal, our hermaphroditic narrator traces his genes and gender identity back to his Greek immigrant grandparents and through to his generation.
Why: I loved The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides first novel, and immediately bought Middlesex and The Marriage Plot.
Thoughts: How do you know when you don’t like a book? Is it when you’re a hundred pages in and, upon realizing there are four hundred more to go, you feel frustrated and a bit nauseous? Is it when the narrator annoys you and you don’t feel the least bit interested in his indulgent detail and pointless asides?
Yea there’s that. All of these applied to my reading of Middlesex But in my reading experience, I can usually tell that I don’t like a book when I feel like I can skip a page and feel like I haven’t missed anything, neither plot-wise or stylistically. A page then turns into a few pages, which then turns into a chapter. By then, I figure the rest of the book is not worth the time.
Sure, I’ve read some boring books, some where I don’t particularly care what happens or where the narrator is detestable. In fact, I’m rarely driven by “what happens” in a book. But as long as I find something to connect to, be it the writing style, the thematic reflections, or a character, I can usually stick through to the end.
I couldn’t find any of that in Middlesex. There was such an overabundance of unnecessary detail that didn’t contribute anything to the meaning of the text besides to just create a realistic portrait. Also I couldn’t tolerate the narrator, who frequently stops to provide some snarky foreshadowing or impossible reflections, like what he hears and sees in his mother’s womb. It bordered on the inane and ridiculous.
This novel seemed to have similar ambitions and a similar style to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and yet, I felt completely different about the two texts. Smith’s narrator is 3rd Person POV, though not entirely characterless. Both novels attempt to discover the “roots” of identity in gender and cultural heritage, but Zadie Smith’s history is constantly reflective, constantly and clearly building upon itself. Every detail (I might be giving too much praise here) is important in its irony, its humor, its cultural significance, so that no storyline or character goes to waste in this epic storytelling.
This isn’t to say that Middlesex is not genuine, not interesting, or even terrible. There are some passages that are wonderfully written and the details can be intuitive and often relate-able. I think it came down to my relationship with the narrator, Cal. What struck me first and most of all about The Virgin Suicides was the “we” narrative voice, so limited in its understanding and yet, so mystically and intriguingly vital to the themes of gender and youth in the novel (see previous review). With Cal, however, I found myself reacting antagonistically to every side remark, every personal reflection, every foreshadowy comment.