Middlesex

It has been a sunny sparkling typical SF Bay Area day. Light breeze and tons of birds chirping up in our maple tree. We opened all the doors and windows, to let in the air and light.

I spent the entire day reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (apparently the Pulitzers Price for Fiction winner of the year).

It is a birthday gift from Gui. I’m on page 322 (out of 520 pages). It is a family saga that started in 1920 and ended in 2000(I’m guessing since i’m not there yet but it did mention GW Bush’s election). It started in a small Greek village above the city of Bursa of Asian Minor, went to Detroit in 1920’s, and to present day Berlin.

I was intrigued by those historical events that mostly I remained ignorant till now. I was pained at the description of the burning of the great city Smyran by the Turks in 1920, and amused by the Ford Company policy in the 1920’s Detroit. They sent FBI style inspectors to their worker’s home to ensure “our workers spent their $5/day pay properly”, by which they meant whether there were houseflied in your house, whether your garbage can has a lid, and they were thorough. Their final “verdict” that would be read aloud in the worker’s kichen would include such details as the style of your tooth brush and the frequency of your bath. The description of Ford Language School’s (most of the workers were new immigrants who spoke little to none English) Graduation ceremony resembled Chinese revolution Opera during Culture Revolution, full of propaganda slogans.

The narrator’s grandparents were in their early 20’s, fleeing from the incoming Turk army. They went through the Burning of Smyrna (now Izmur in today’s Turkey), long ocean voyage Titanic style (minus the sinking, it was Leonardo and Kate story with a twist), Detriot the newly blooming city in 1920’s aiming to overtak New York, its racial tension building up over the years, bootlegging of liquors from Canada during prohibition, burning of Detriot during the socalled racial “riot” in 1967 which ended with National Guards shooting their way into town hiding inside their armored tanks, Tian’an Men Square style, etc. etc. etc.

The author waved his family story with the history of Detriot and Asian Minor with such a skillful and humorous pen. It was an enjoyable read. Here is one of many quotes that i loved, the narrator’s grandma had a silk farm back in their mountainous Greek village above the city of Bursa:

According to an ancient Chinese legend, one day in the year 2640 B.C., Princess Si Ling-chi was sitting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her teacup. When she tried to remove it, she noticed that the cocoon had begun to unravel in the hot liquid. She handed the loose end to her maidservant and told her to walk. The servant went out of the princess’s chamber, and into the palace courtyard, and through the palace gates, and out of the Forbidden City, and into the countryside a half mile away before the cocoon ran out. (In the west, the legend would slowly mutate over three millennia, until it became the story of a physicist and an apple. Either way, the meanings are the same: great discoveries, whether of silk or of gravity, are always windfalls. They happen to people loafing under trees.)

Okay, so the Forbidden City was nonexistent in 2640B.C.. So what? you have to admit it is a rather fun read. 🙂

Here is another one. The main theme of the book which has been mentioned by all reviewers first thing on their list which was a rare genetic mutation the main charactor plus narrator possesses. Calliope Stephanides was born a girl and in her(or his) teenager years was found to be really a underdeveloped boy. Finding it a tough condition to explain and tired of being rejected over and over, in his adult life, he safely build up a nomatic life in the Foreign Services. Dating woman he is attracted to, getting close to them and then dissappear. In present day Berlin, he met an Asian girl,Julie,who was born and raised in California…

…When the kiss was over she opened her eyes very wide. “I thought you were gay when we met,”she said.
“Must have been the suit.”
“My gay-dar went off completely.” Julie was shaking her head. “I’m always suspicious, being the last stop.”
“The last what?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of that? Asian chicks are the last stop. If a guy’s in the closet, he goes for an Asian because their bodies are more like boys.'”
“Your body’s not like a boy’s,” I said.
“This embarrassed Julie. She looked away.
“You’ve had a lot of closeted gay guys go after you?” I asked her.
“Twice in college, three times in graduate school,”answered Julie.
There was no other response to his but to kiss her again.

The first time i heard about this book was on the New Yorker, which chose a segment of the book and published it in its Fiction section as a short story. I loved it and forwarded it to my friends. Earlier this year when Gui mentioned the book to me, it took me a while to remember what the short story was about. Today when i re-reading it i totally remembered why it touched me so. It is this paragraph in particular, Calliope was 14 years old, on her eighth grade classic english class, she was called upon by her teacher Mr. da Silva to read a paragraph from Iliad:

It was one o’clock. An after-lunch lethargy lay over the room. Outside, rain threatened. There was a knock at the door.
“Excuse me, Callie. Could you stop for a moment, please?” Mr. da Silva turned toward the door. “Come in.”

Along with everyone else, I looked up. Standing in the doorway was a redheaded girl. Two clouds bumped up above, skidding past each other, and let down a beam of light. This beam struck the glass roof of the greenhouse. Passing through the hanging geranium, it picked up the rosy light which now, in a kind of membrane, enveloped the girl. It was also possible that the wasn’t doing this at all, but a certain intensity, a soul ray, from my eyes.

I’ve read somewhere before that good fiction is one that says in whords what we had felt and loved that we always knew existed but until that moment didn’t know how to express it. This paragraph did exactly that for me. It brought me back to my high school days. It was like a mix of my first day in high school, a little love story told by my high school friend during our confessional late night chats and a poem written for me. That girl stood in the light in front of Calliope became a combination of my best friend Gui, a boy that I and many other girls in my class had a crush for, and myself. That was 15-16 years ago! Wow!

4 thoughts on “Middlesex

  1. Your introduction intrigues me. Now I understand its title “Middlesex”! 🙂
    And ur quotations are great. I never heard the cocoon legend myself. thanks.

  2. danzhu: you are welcome. I’ve never heard of that silk legend either. I suspect that he made it up. 🙂

    At beginning I thought the title was just referring to the main charactor’s mutation. But now it seems that it also has another more direct meaning, the family house where Calliope grew up was on a small street in the suburb of Detroit. The street name is “Middlesex”, which used to be a county name in England. Now that part has been absorbed into Greater London.

    Out of curiousity, found this on google:

    The -sex affix on the placenames in England which you mention refers to the Saxons. Hence, Essex was originally the `territory of the East Saxons’ (from 9th century East Seaxe `East Saxons’); Wessex was originally West Seaxe `West Saxons;’ and Middlesex, in the 6th century, was Middelseaxan, `middle Saxons.’
    http://www.takeourword.com/et_q-s.html#sussex

  3. The -sex affix explanation is very interesting, reminding me of the meaning of “adolescence”. Who’s the boy you and others had a crush on? 😉

  4. 12! That soldier you missed. I wonder what if you were there, too? Will everything be different?

    btw, what do you think of the new layout? Any suggestions? I was having so much trouble with the color coordination… 🙁

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