I’ve always had some sort of aversion to this book. I never understood why it was so universally acclaimed by everyone I spoke to. The main plot is about two siblings that get married and have a child, who then goes on to marry his first cousin, who then has a child that is a hermaphrodite due to the genetic mutations passed on from incest. The story just never seemed to be the kind that all people can relate to.
So as usual with a book post, I want to touch on lots of things I thought about during the reading of the book without going into much detail on any of them. The other aspect of this post is to make some sort of argument that will get people to read the book even if they are sort of put off by the content.
The narrator is the hermaphrodite. So let’s address this right off the bat. He is born and raised as a female, even though he is genetically essentially a male. So a transformation takes place over the course of the book from Callie (female) to Cal (male). To me the “hermaphrodite nature” of the book is to completely miss the point. It seems more of a device to indicate transformation from being confused about your identity and sexuality to becoming more comfortable with yourself and accepting yourself for who you are. It is a device to indicate coming of age. It exists for literary reasons, and to me, this seems to be the only reason it exists. I believe everyone will be able to identify with Cal in a deep way.
The structure of the book is really effective as well. Cal is an adult narrating his family history. The “current” timeline is usually about the first paragraph or so of the chapter and then the chapter flashes back. Over time you start to better understand Cal’s current motivations and life. Due to having both male and female sex organs, Cal has spent his life very closed off. He is afraid of telling people, so never really let’s anyone in. To me, this is the most profound aspect of the book. Again, instead of the hermaphrodite aspect of the book alienating readers, it actually creates a universal situation. Everyone has a past and some secrets they are afraid of. This “current” timeline gives the book this edge: a story about finding someone who will accept these aspects of you. It is risky and scary to let someone get close to you, but if you are honest about yourself and they accept you as this person, the pay-off is much greater than living closed off.
As with The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides writes fantastically beautiful prose. He seems to be much better in this book, though. He quickly jumps around in style to perfectly set up and mimic exactly what the content of the sentences are trying to say. Some paragraphs I think of as just heart-wrenching snippets of truth. Of course, I didn’t mark them, so it will be hard to find now. But here is one I randomly opened to:
It occured to me today that I’m not as far along as I thought. Writing my story isn’t the courageous act of liberation I had hoped it would be. Writing is solitary, furtive, and I know all about those things. I’m an expert in the underground life. Is it really my apolitical temperament that makes me keep my distance from the intersexual movement? Couldn’t it also be fear? Of standing up. Of becoming one of them.
Still, you can only do what you’re able. If this story is written only for myself, then so be it. But it doesn’t feel that way. I feel you out there, reader. This is the only kind of intimacy I’m comfortable with. Just the two of us, here in the dark.
Another aspect of the book is about chance and how much of our lives are out of our control. The book often reads like Pynchon. It is full of reference, statistics, and facts. This is a very effective way of addressing the question of whether our lives are just the lump sum of determined information, or is there something more. This aspect of the book is hard to describe. It is very implicit and never explicitly addressed. It always is lurking there in the hard factual data that seems to be competing with the flowery undetermined prose around it. From which does Cal’s life get its meaning? This seems to also be the reason we follow three generations of this family. The point seems to be setting up the fact that all these things happen that directly affect and determine Cal’s life before he is even born. There seems to be one part of the book that tries to give a definitive answer, but I won’t spoil that plot point.
I could go on forever, so I’ll try to wrap it up. I didn’t even touch on comparisons to and use of Greek mythology. Or any of the great world and American historical events going on in the background, always subtly affecting everyone.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough. It raises the big questions in a new way. It is funny. It forces you to examine your own life. It is about learning to accept yourself and others. It is about the struggle between succumbing to all the predetermined genetic, scientific, political and historical forces working against you and actually living your life and overcoming these forces. It is about societal norms. It is about falling in love. There are so many instances that I thought it was reading my mind. There were other moments I knew it wasn’t, because it helped me figure out something I was struggling with. It is about the messiness of life. It is universal.