At the end of the second chapter of Middlesex, the first chronologically, Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides, brother and sister, are dancing in the grape arbour outside their house in the village of Bithyinios, on the slopes of Mount Olympus, overlooking the town of Bursa. It's 1922. 'And in the middle of this, before anything had been said outright or any decisions made (before fire would make those decisions for them), right then, mid-waltz, they heard explosions in the distance, and looked down to see, in firelight, the Greek Army in full retreat.' The decisions that will be made relate to their unsiblinglike feelings for one another (Lefty's feelings are revealed, to the reader at least, through his taste for town prostitutes who look like his sister); the explosions are set off by the Greeks in flight from the invading Turks. The burning of Smyrna will follow, in which more than one hundred thousand Greeks and Armenians will die; Desdemona and Lefty, fleeing from the flames to America, will marry and have a child, whose own child will inherit the recessive joker-gene his grandparents unknowingly carried, and will be born apparently female, only later to turn out to be male. Smyrna will be taken by the Turks and will become Izmir ('modern-high rises, amnesiac boulevards, teeming sweatshops, a Nato headquarters'); Cal will be a pseudo-hermaphrodite, suffering from 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. Jeffrey Eugenides does both background and foreground in all the necessary detail. He flips the switch from near to far; particularly telling moments encompass both, in artful combination. The oddest thing about the telling is that it's all made magnificently plausible: very nearly every impossible event is elaborately justified and motivated.
LRB 3 October 2002 | PDF Download