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.

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