Michigan native Jeffrey Eugenides returns tonight to engage Ann Arbor’s literary community with his second novel, “Middlesex;” Nearly at the end of a 12 city book tour, Eugenides has scheduled Shaman Drum Bookshop as the second of three Michigan readings.
Eugenides is best known for his 1993 debut novel, “The Virgin Suicides,” an enthralling narrative of black humor and sinuous drama. With a plot that hinges on the peripheral lines of social context, “The Virgin Suicides” depicts the infatuation a group of local Michigan boys have for five suicidal sisters. “The Virgin Suicides” conveys Eugenides’ unique ability to transform the darkness and disparity of suicide into a familiar and defiantly witty portrayal of adolescence. Such distinction earned “The Virgin Suicides” the 1993 Whiting Award and the ALA Book of the Year. More noticeably, “Virgin Suicides” has been translated into 15 languages and produced into a 1999 film starring Kathleen Turner, James Woods, Kirsten Dunst and Josh Hartnett.
However, Eugenides comes to Ann Arbor not to bask in the success of his previous novel, but to demonstrate his repertoire of skill evident in “Middlesex,” refined through prestigious academia. He graduated magna cum laude from Brown University and polished his proficiency through Stanford’s English and Creative Writing Masters program. In recent years, Eugenides has received numerous awards, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently lives in Germany with his wife and child where he serves as a Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin.
Despite such an intellectually prosperous adulthood, “Middlesex” is reminiscent of the author’s local upbringing. The long-awaited second novel is a narrative journey in which a 41-year old hermaphrodite named Cal traces his physiological and cultural upbringing to the incestuous relationship of his Greek grandparents. Both Eugenides and Cal, short for Calliope Stephanides, were raised in the suburbs outside of Detroit and are of Greek descent.
“Middlesex” appeals to more than those interested in gender or cultural issues. The rareness of Cal’s “5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodite” state intertwines with the values of being human and the intangible intricacies of life. “Middlesex” allows the reader to contemplate the complexity of ambiguity and the indefinable realms of a unique world both physically and emotionally. This challenge is eloquently portrayed through the direct narration that leaves little to hide and much to consider. “Middlesex” opens with “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.”
Eugenides articulation of such complicated issues as suicide and hermaphrodite identity substantiate the eloquence of his talent. Be prepared, as the “Middlesex” reading may allow more than Cal’s identity to surface.