I wrote my undergradate dissertation on this novel because I love it.
It also turned out to be very topical as this year transgender is definitely ‘having a moment’ (although I dislike the way transgender has been treated like a trend rather than something real people actually live through).
Middlesex was written in 2002, a good decade or so before this sudden cultural interest in everything trans, and it is also more specifically about an intersex individual: Calliope Stephanides. The novel begins with Cal, a forty-something man living in Berlin, and he narrates his life story, starting with his grandparents and their migration from Greece to America, his parents upbringing, followed by the first fourteen years of his life as a girl before his transition. The novel is interspersed with details of Cal’s present life in Berlin and his reflections on his unusual teenage years. It is a complex exploration of identity, mainly gender identity but also cultural and personal identity too.
(N.B. In the process of writing my dissertation, I learnt that one of the most important things is not to generalise about transgender experience – which itself is an umbrella term for many different people – and so I hope that I don’t fall into the trap of doing so in this post. I also don’t want to suggest that all intersex people would identify as trans, as I know there are many who would not, but I aim to talk about the novel in the context of speaking about gender and the way society constructs and perceives gender.)
A lot of the critical material written on this novel argues that it does not push societal boundaries far enough – it is too constrained by gender binaries. I think that this is certainly true to an extent but that it is perhaps unfairly harsh to condemn this novel as being un-progressive. I think that it does begin to destabilise the way we think about gender and to expose the rigid binaries which are unconsciously part of society.
Calliope is raised as a girl and it is not until she hits puberty that she realises that she ‘is not a girl like other girls’. Before her transition to become Cal, Callie is taken by her parents to a gender identity clinic where she is encouraged to undertake surgical and hormonal treatment in order to appear a ‘normal’ girl. Callie chooses to reject this option and runs away from her family, on a journey to San Francisco. On the way, Callie sheds her feminine identity and takes on a masculine one. For me, this transition really highlights the way that people construct their gender, normatively or otherwise. Much of gender attribution is based on external appearance and a set of characteristics or mannerisms that we consider either ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ – when we meet people we automatically assess their appearance and tend to decide one way or the other which gender they are, yet most characteristics are not exclusively present in only one gender. For instance a strong jawline and short hair are stereotypically masculine but they do not ‘qualify’ a person as male. By showing the way that Cal changes his appearance to forge his new identity and make it recognisable to those he interacts with undermines the idea that gender is based on sexual anatomy – gender attributions in day to day life have little to do with what’s underneath people’s clothes.
This section of the novel also attempts to create relatable experiences that anyone regardless of gender could empathise with. While I understand that this has the potential to be very reductive – everyone’s experiences are not the same – I think the intentions behind this are commendable. The experience of adolescence and the journey to adulthood are things almost everyone can relate to and they illustrate how Cal is just an ordinary person like everyone else. Of course, Cal is not just an ‘ordinary guy’ but I think this process of trying to empathise with and understand someone who is different from yourself is strongly aided by being able to recognise similarities. Change is a process of acceptance and a change in societal opinion is a gradual one. This is a simplistic approach but one that I think should not be dismissed.
While it would be silly to say that Cal’s intersex identity does not define his character, I believe that it does not completely dominate the story. The novel is so much more than a story about a non-normatively gendered character and I think this is what makes it such a great novel, worthy of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction it won in 2003. It spans three generations of a Greek-American family and is a complex coming-of age epic. It is funny, and its anecdotal style, that harks back to an oral-tradition of story-telling, is inventive and a pleasure to read. The unusual narration – both first person but also sometimes omniscient, observing events the protagonist could not possibly have witnessed – mean it has a unique feel that I don’t think I have ever read before. The huge scope of the novel could have been too much of an undertaking but it is very well constructed, the non-chronological narration is expertly crafted and themes and characters are deftly woven into the story.
On its cover, The New York Times credits Middlesex for being “expansive and radiantly generous…a colossal act of curiosity, of imagination and of love”, something I wholeheartedly agree with. It’s one of my favourites 🙂