Some books are without precedent; Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex is one of those books. Published in 2002, nine years after his debut novel The Virgin Suicides was released, Middlesex is narrated by Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite of Greek descent who is raised as a girl in Grosse Point, Michigan, before undergoing surgery in puberty and living his adult life as a man. Middlesex is a modern epic that spans generations and cultures, and addresses coming of age, sexuality, immigration, and many of the other rifts and conflicts in contemporary American life with humanity and humor. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003; in 2007, Oprah selected it for her Book Club. On January 15, Arts & Lectures brings Eugenides to Santa Barbara to discuss the book. I spoke with him recently from his new home in Princeton, New Jersey.
You’re teaching at Princeton now - your first real teaching job, is that right? Yes. This is the first time, I mean, I’m a professor now, so it’s the first time I’ve taken an actual teaching position.
How do you find it? The biggest change is that we’ve always lived in big cities - New York, Berlin, Chicago - and now we’re in a small town. I mean, we go to the same bar every time we go to a bar. I might find that congenial, but it’s too early yet to say.
Winning Oprah’s attention is the ultimate fast-track to induction into American popular culture - were you prepared for that? Well, Middlesex obviously was published in 2002 and got the Pulitzer in 2003, so it had a lot of exposure before the Oprah selection. I can’t say that I noticed a vast sea change in the book’s exposure. The Oprah experience was much more calm and tranquil than people imagine it to be. They chose the book - it was summertime - and I came back from Europe to do some appearances, but they didn’t want to burden me with too many things.
How about winning the Pulitzer? That was more of a thunderclap in terms of the change - the number of people reading the book and the exposure it got. I was not aware how well known the prize was in other countries; it’s known all over the world.
Would it be accurate to say you ‘stumbled upon’ a hermaphroditic narrator in a quest to find the ultimately flexible point of view? I don’t think I stumbled on it. I did read an actual memoir of a 19th century hermaphrodite, written by Michel Foucault, and that did pique my interest in someone who has been both sexes and might have more knowledge about both sides of the divide, so it began as specific curiosity about a person of that kind. And then, of course, it did dovetail with a novelist’s basic concern, which is to know as much as possible about both sexes, so a hermaphrodite was, in a sense, the ultimate narrator.
Now that you’ve written Middlesex, how do you feel about pronouns? I know they give me a headache, and I’m not dealing with your subject matter. Well, one of the reasons I wrote the book from the first person was so that I could avoid that awkwardness and just have an ‘I’ - it would have been very difficult to write it from the third person. I’m somewhat old-fashioned in my use of pronouns - like many women novelists I admire, I do usually stick with ‘he’ when I have a noun.
It seems like it’s more than a question of style that lead to the choice of first person narration. My sense is that the book is about identity, and each of us, we’re all an ‘I’ before we are a ‘he’ or a ‘she.’ Identity is obviously influenced by our gender, but an ‘I’ is more important than a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ - each person’s experience is significant outside of the considerations of gender.