Monday, December 28, 2009

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides

Sometimes I hear about a book for months, even years, before I finally pick it up and give it a try. My students and my serious reader friends have been urging me to read Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, for a very long time, so it may be old news for many of you by now, but having finally read it, I find I just have to talk about it today.

There is so much to be learned from this hefty novel, and while perhaps the most important theme is that of the many children born with ambiguous sexual organs and lumped together under the ambiguous title of hermaphrodite, there is also a wealth of information about historical struggles between Greeks and Turks, as well as about how the American automobile industry has, from its inception, treated its workers, and how the decline of that same industry has decimated cities. It is an ambitious and sprawling novel, but it also has the homey feel of a family story, and my prediction is that once you give it a hundred-page trial, you will be unable to put it down.

The main theme of the novel is announced on page one: “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.” Fortunately for us readers, this twice born being, first named Calliope and only much later renamed simply Cal, found it necessary to trace his lineage and his story back to his grandparents who fled from a war-torn Greek island in the 1920s and landed finally in Detroit where they began their family. And so the first several hundred pages of this novel are about the miraculous escape of his grandparents, their eventual settling in Detroit, and the grimy and tumultuous history of that great American city.

Calliope’s grandfather, Lefty Stephaides, worked first for Ford Motor Company, though the complex of buildings was known to local residents simply as the Rouge.
And then the Rouge appeared against the sky, rising out of the smoke it generated. At first all that was visible was the tops of the eight main smokestacks. Each gave birth to its own dark cloud. The clouds plumed upward and merged into a general pall that hung over the landscape, sending a shadow that ran along the trolley tracks; and Lefty understood that the men’s silence was a recognition of this shadow, of its inevitable approach each morning. 

Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we’ve all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds. 

But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine. 

On the factory floor, my grandfather was trained for his job in seventeen minutes. Part of the new production method’s genius was its division of labor into unskilled tasks. That way you could hire anyone. And fire anyone. The foreman showed Lefty how to take a bearing from the conveyor, grind it on a lathe, and replace it. Holding a stopwatch, he timed the new employee’s attempts. Then, nodding once, he led Lefty to his position on the line. On the left stood a man named Wierzbicki; on the right, a man named O’Malley. For a moment, they are three men, waiting together. Then the whistle blew. 

Every fourteen seconds Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. This camshaft travels away on a conveyor, curling around the factory, through clouds of metal dust, its acid fogs, until another worker fifty yards on reaches up and removes the camshaft, fitting it onto the engine block (twenty seconds). Simultaneously, other men are unhooking parts from adjacent conveyors—the carburetor, the distributor, the intake manifold—and connecting them to the engine block. Above their bent heads, huge spindles pound steampowered fists. No one says a word.
This description continues for several pages, as eloquent as Charlie Chaplan’s movie Modern Times in expressing the essence of the assembly line and its soul-sucking noise and repetition. We also hear of the so-called social workers Ford sends out to spy on the home conditions of the workers, telling them how to brush their teeth, how to raise their children, whom to avoid if they wish to continue working for Ford Motor. If there are too many families living in one apartment, that, alone, may be grounds for dismissal, since these audacious spies have decided that living in such crowded conditions makes for unreliable employees, and there are always more interchangeable workers to fill the ranks.

This novel would be worth reading simply for it social commentary and its description of the birth, life, and slow-death of cities like Detroit, but equally fascinating is the story of the thousands of children born with two sets of sexual organs.
Because of certain genetic and hormonal conditions, it was sometimes difficult to determine the sex of a newborn baby. 

The chief imperative in cases like mine was to show no doubt as to the gender of the child in question. You did not tell the parents of a newborn, “Your baby is a hermaphodite.” Instead, you said, “Your daughter was born with a clitoris that is a little larger than a normal girl’s. We’ll need to do surgery to make it the right size. {It was} felt that parents weren’t able to cope with an ambiguous gender assignment. You had to tell them if they had a boy or a girl.
A doctor in one of my classes confirmed that during his early days as a military doctor, determination of sex was done simply on the basis of appearance. If the penis was too small, the baby was pronounced to be female; it the clitoris was too big, the baby was pronounced to be male. Never mind that in the first case, undescended testes would cause a new crisis in adolescence (as was the case with Callipoe), just as hormonal changes during puberty would cause similar crises in the stipulated males who suddenly developed breasts and other secondary sexual characteristics of females. Over hundreds of years, various criterion have been used to determine gender: in the late 1800s looking at gonadal tissue under a microscope was deemed to be the definitive test; if it’s testicular, the person was a male, if ovarian, female. But a later discovery determined “that gender identity is established very early on in life, about the age of two. Gender was like a native tongue; it didn’t exist before birth but was imprinted in the brain during childhood, never disappearing. Children learn to speak Male or Female the way they learn to speak English or French.”

That there is no tidy answer to this question of male or female, nature or nurture, and that finally it is more a matter of stipulation than discovery emerges clearly over the course of this wonderful book. The only way to get to whole story is to read the book.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Some writers write with a grace and fluidity that seems to allow them to paint pictures without leaving  brushstrokes. Jhumpa Larhiri is such a writer, and the seamless flow of the stories in her recent collection, Unaccustomed Earth, reveals so much about loneliness and exile, about family secrets and unspoken pains. The satin smoothness of the writing leads to a kind of emotional understatement, so that even scenes of great pathos leave hardly a surface ripple.

This set of stories is connected both by common characters and common themes, with the main theme being that of the struggle between American born children and their Bengali parents. Lahiri understands at a deep level both the struggles of the children to assimilate to their new culture without constantly disappointing their parents, and the isolation and fears of the parents who fiercely hold their children to them and to their cultural values and yet realize that they must somehow set them free.

For the most part, these immigrants, unlike so many before them who have fled to this country from impoverishment and political oppression, come from relatively prosperous backgrounds. Men who, with the support of their Indian families, come to attain professional degrees as doctors, scientists, and engineers, and who bring with them the wives from arranged marriages.  Certainly, it is the wives who have the most difficulty in adjusting. Often marooned in suburbs where there are no other Indian families and dressed in traditional clothes that will mark them out as foreigners forever, they seem merely tolerated by their busy husbands and often enough an embarrassment to their children who are frantically throwing off traditional values in an attempt to assimilate.
I began to pity my mother; the older I got, the more I saw what a desolate life she led. She had never worked, and during the day she watched soap operas to pass the time. Her only job, every day, was to clean and cook for my father and me. We rarely went to restaurants, my father always pointing out, even in cheap ones, how expensive they were compared with eating at home. When my mother complained to him about how much she hated life in the suburbs and how lonely she felt, he said nothing to placate her. “If you are so unhappy, go back to Calcutta,” he would offer, making it clear that their separation would not affect him one way or the other. I began to take my cues from my father in dealing with her, isolating her doubly.
Of course, not all the men, even those whose marriages have been arranged, are as unfeeling and indifferent as this one, but Lahiri is quick to point out that most of them have from childhood never done anything for themselves, not even the making of tea or the picking up of their discarded clothes. Coddled and spoiled always by mothers and sisters, they expect their wives to serve them, to be grateful for the money they make and the homes they provide, and, of course, to raise children who at once are successful in this new culture and yet embrace the values of the old. If the children fail, it is the fault of the wife, and if they adopt the dress and lifestyle of their more wild and promiscuous American friends, that, too, is the fault of the mother.

Lahiri is meticulous in describing and analyzing the family lives and romantic attachments of her characters. Often enough, it is the female children who have some understanding of the intense loneliness of their mothers, as well as the nostalgia and sense of isolation of their fathers. The male children simply chaff against the expectations of their stern fathers and the suffocating concern of their mothers.
While Sudah (the daughter) regarded her parents’ separation from India as an ailment that ebbed and flowed like a cancer, Rahul was impermeable to that aspect of their life as well. “No one dragged them here,” he would say. “Baba left India to get rich, and Ma married him because she had nothing else to do.” That was Rahul, always aware of the family’s weaknesses, never sparing Sudha from the things she least wanted to face.
While I have spoken so far mainly of the isolation and exile of the parents, many of these stories center on the lives of the children when they are in college or boarding schools. Some dare to marry non-Indian mates, and must then enter into their own struggles of straddling two cultures. Others, who can neither yield to the arranged or semi-arranged marriages their parents want for them, nor enter into uneasy alliances with non-Indian men or women who will always view them as foreign and odd, simply choose to live as exiles. Lahiri seems to understand each of her characters from the inside. She displays an emotional intelligence and understanding that makes her stories shimmer. The lives she describes are neither happy nor overwhelmingly sad, but each seems to carry the weight of truth and lucidity.