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.
Middlesex has been likened to Angels in America – another American epic spanning generations. At what point did you realize you were writing an epic? That’s the first time I’ve heard that comparison, though it’s certainly a wonderful compliment. I didn’t start out thinking in terms of an epic. At first, I thought the book would be a slim fictional autobiography of a person with this condition, but I wanted to be as accurate as I could be about the biology involved, so I did a lot of research, and the one I chose ended up being a genetic condition. Once I learned that, I ended up telling the story following the genetic mutation through the generations until it landed in the body of my narrator. So I didn’t know when I was starting out where it would lead, but my research led me to think in broader terms.
Is that typical of your work, would you say? Yes, it is common. I mean I am more of a natural novelist than I am a short story writer. Typically when I get an idea the way it evolves is by suggesting other connections. One idea leads to anther, and when I find that there’s a web coming into being that makes a greater whole, then that’s the line I follow – I’m more of a maximalist than a minimalist.
The theme of a Homeric odyssey pervades the novel. It seems to me that among other things, this echo unseats Cal’s narrative omniscience; it turns what might have been authoritative storytelling into something more like allegory. What made you go there? I didn’t think of allegory consciously when I was writing the book. I saw the book as a mock epic in a way, so obviously it’s going to travel with a lot of standard epic locutions. I agree with you that the narrator is not in full possession of the truth. I thought I should make a pact with the reader that my narrator would tell – as faithfully and honestly as he could – the story of his grandparents and parents and their history, but obviously it’s not going to be possible to speak with authority about what happened in 1922 when you were born in 1960. So yes, I wanted to show the artifice of the storytelling to a certain extent. Not that Cal is dishonest as a narrator, because I don’t think he is, but he’s very honest about the limits of his knowledge.
Is that what makes it possible for him to make leaps of imagination, like entering other people’s bodies, as when he describes the scene where The Obscure Object is making out with a boy, or when he tells the story of the car chase with Father Mike? Is this part of the same urge to destabilize the singular point of view? Those are meant to be imaginative leaps of the narrator, not actual breaking of physical laws, but the first one happens with a fair amount of drugs being smoked and consumed in various ways. Yeah, in a real myth people can inhabit someone else’s body, whereas in my work they can only do that through doing drugs or through writing.
Maybe this is reading too much into it, but in looking at Cal’s reaction to being discovered, and his dual instinct to run away and yet to revel in the exposure (as a kind of freak show attraction in San Francisco), I found myself thinking about the experience of publishing your own writing – you want to expose something, but the attention is not always very comfortable. Do you see a connection there? I can see your making that connection – it certainly wasn’t intended in any way to be about publishing. I just thought that, if you were going to change your identity that drastically, the only way you could do that would be to change your location, and not have the people who have known you your whole life be witness to the change. That’s obviously a traditional theme in American writing – the reconstruction of one’s identity. Throughout that whole part of the book, you know, Cal is playacting. As Judith Butler would say, gendered behavior is performative, and Cal is having to pick up these things, to learn to live as a man. Also, traditionally, people with these conditions have been treated as freaks, and I wanted to address some of the pain of that experience.
I know you did a lot of research, especially on the scientific end of things, but when it came to imagining how Cal would react to something like having to learn how to behave like a man, did you turn to your own imagination? Yeah, you imagine it as though you were playing the role on stage, and had to play this part – what in your life would have been a little bit like that? I had vague memories of being a boy and trying to act like a man. It’s imagination and kind of a method acting approach.
Are you trained as an actor? I used to act in high school and college, and so I did like acting, and I know a little bit about it. It seems to me that writing and acting do sometimes overlap – there’s a fair amount of mimicry in writing. I find that many of the best writers I know are also very good at mimicry.
I have to ask you about that scene where the Eldorado takes off and flies into the sky – it’s one of my favorite passages. Where did that image come from? Well, that one also happens just within Milton’s own brain, just as he’s about to die. It is actually a very personal metaphor for me that is somewhat painful, and I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about that.
OK. Well, it’s a very affecting passage, at least for me. Maybe that’s why.
Nine years elapsed between the publication of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex – you’re known for working slowly. What can you tell me about your writing process; do you develop a draft early on and then spend years rewriting? Ah, the writing process. I wish I had a writing process. The only process I have is that I work every day for much of the day. I’ve only written two books, so my method hasn’t really coalesced into any real habits. I usually learn new things with each project, and I haven’t arrived at a place where I know that much about my process. I was talking to John McPhee about it, and he’s written a lot of books and has a sense of the stages of production. I’d like to get to that point, but for now my process remains one of diligence. And also one of confusion.
What can you tell me about the novel you’re working on now? [Laughs] Just about nothing. It’s very different from Middlesex and it’s – as most books are – a kind of reaction to its predecessor.
I expect after living with a novel for more than a decade, you’re ready to put it to bed. Yeah, living with it for ten and then talking about it for five. But as long as people in Santa Barbara still want to hear about it, I’m willing to talk.
4•1•1: Jeffrey Eugenides will speak at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, January 15 at 8 p.m. Copies of his books will be available for purchase and signing. For tickets or more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu