How would you write a novel about a hermaphrodite growing up in the 60s and 70s? How would you go about involving your readers with the protagonist’s emotions and fate? Would you start with her childhood and girly roles she had to play, charm readers with her innocence and happiness, and then shock them in the middle of the book with the difficult discovery at her puberty? That’s one way to do it for sure, but it wouldn’t have worked for me. It wouldn’t have made me savor every chapter of the book, the way Eugenides has.
He instead tells a condensed version of Calliope Stephanides’ sexual identity, right in the first page of the book in first person. He is a handsome man attracted to women, with whom he can not have sex or even get naked because he doesn’t have a normal penis. His frank and humorous account of his fate in the beginning of the book is a powerful core that dictates the color and themes of the rest of the book. From now on, everything happens to make a mutated gene find its human body.
The story starts in Asia minor, amidst an ongoing conflict with Turks led by Ata Turk. The theme in this part of the book is very much like Marquez’s Magical Realism in 100 years of solitude, with a more humorous tone. And just like 100 years the ancestors are guilty of a sin that would eventually create a weirdo, remember the iguana child at the end of that book? Despite the bizarre and horrible things that happen in this chapter, the couple’s sweetness and passion for survival charms us. We want the characters to get away from burning Smirna and get to America, forget their past and start a new life.
Next comes a beautiful depiction of immigrant life in the 20s and 30s in Detroit. Our lovely Greek couple do anything to fit in in their new country. There is a brilliant scene of a Henry Ford workers graduation show, in which immigrant workers dressed in their native clothing walk into a symbolic “Melting Pot” and come out in gray and blue suits. Desdemona fakes being half Muslim despite her hatred for Turks to find a job as a silk maker for a group of people whose identity I don’t want to reveal and spoil the fun for you. The way the author lets us glide through the historical context of these years through these weird and sweet Greek couple and then their children, is enjoyable and powerful. We see the world war II through the love story of Calliope’s parents, and civil rights movements through Calliope as a young girl.
All along this engaging and eventful generational story, there is another layer of narrative about the genes, birth, eggs and sperms, which is as interesting and compelling, thanks to the writing. There are great analogies used to give meaning to the underlying biological event that’s about to happen. The whole story is compared to a cocoon from Desdemona’s silk worm box that Calliope needs to reel to find the answers. The way these two layers are connected, is what makes Calliope’s life bearable and take away some of his loneliness. The way he finds a long thread of love and suffering in his past, both leads to his fate and lightens up his burden. As he once says he is in search of Einheit, like Berlin.