Calliope "Cal" Stephanides is a Greek-American hermaphrodite who eventually lives functionally as a 41-year-old male working for the US State Department. He lives in Berlin, a German city, that like himself, was "once divided."
Like the typical Greek hero, Cal leaves one condition and finds the source of life to bring him forth into a richer and more mature one.
We follow this single mutated gene on the fifth chromosome on a journey that begins in 1922 and spans three generations and over 50 years. Cal's paternal grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are a brother and sister in an incestuous marriage. The journey starts as they leave their Old World Middle Eastern city of Smyrna, which is burning at the hands of the Turks, and board a freighter bound for America. We follow along to the marriage of Cal's parents, second cousins Milton and Tessie, and on to Detroit, where, on January 8, 1960, "Cal" is born Calliope. Like all the other babies born that day, Cal is "extracted, spanked, and hosed off and put on display among six infants, four boys, two girls," but all of them, unlike Cal, are "correctly tagged."
Although Callie spends the early years of her life, during the 1960s and 1970s, as the relatively unexceptional daughter of a hot-dog entrepreneur, in growing up she proves to be anything but unexceptional. Although she was raised a girl, she possesses a male brain: a "5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome [that] allows for normal biosynthesis and peripheral action of testosterone, in utero, neonatally, and at puberty," which in hindsight explains why Callie had become a "late-bloomer."
Callie inherits her grandmother's sense of guilt for her incestuous involvement with her brother and it manifests itself in Callie's sexuality. But unlike Oedipus of Greek mythology, who stabs out his eyes, Callie refuses to go under the knife of a doctor who wishes to "cut her up." She refuses to allow him to slice away her identity, so at the age of 14, she runs away from home.
Like her grandparents before her, Callie finds that traveling makes it easy to re-create oneself and, like Oedipus before her, she is cast into exile from her family and onto the streets of San Francisco. There, like Oedipus outside Athens, she is forced to rely upon the proverbial kindness of strangers and begins to experience life for the first time as a man, a process which comes remarkably easy for her.
While in San Francisco, Cal meets a stripper named Zora, who also happens to be a hermaphrodite, and their lives become connected when they room with one another and work together, performing at a club called 69ers in North Beach. Zora opens Cal's mind to the possibility that gender is merely a cultural assumption, and like Oedipus, Cal is redeemed by love and a newfound social conscience. Cal feels that he is loved and accepted for who and what he is: "two halves, one male, one female."
Eugenides calls into question here many commonly held assumptions of gender -- what it means to be "male" or "female." He deconstructs the categories themselves by presenting the reader with a character who is neither "male" nor "female," and by separating the "sexuality" -- neither homosexual nor heterosexual -- from the gender. In the process, he deconstructs all categories of identity formation such as black/white, migrant/American, city-dweller/suburbanite, and old world/new world and presents them merely as cultural fictions.
Just as Oedipus was blind, Cal too was blind, for before he came to San Francisco, he believed he was the only one ever to have struggled in this way. By the end of the novel, learning of the death of his father, he returns from his journey at peace with himself and gifted with the wisdom and prophecy of self-knowledge. He knows that "what really matters in life, what gives it weight, is death," as everyone struggles against despair and death is the only thing that "allows us to say goodbye." He learns that for true self-transformation to take place "you have to come back from where you've been."
Unlike much contemporary fiction, the opening pages of Middlesex make no attempt to "hook" the reader. What Eugenides does is to set the pace and tone of the entire novel, telling us, in effect, that Cal's story will proceed in a leisurely fashion -- although "Homeric" at times -- and will be told on his own terms. It carries an implied promise that the characters we're going to meet will be thoroughly engrossing, and they are. Eugenides creates a vivid and compelling portrait of youth and lost innocence, one of self-discovery and acceptance without seeming insincere.
One of the rarest gifts a novelist can possess is that of being able to present characters and situations that are unusual, even exotic or bizarre, and make them seem universal. Remarkably, on every page of this book, the promise is kept and then some.