The Gender Blender

Jeffrey Eugenides must have waited years to exploit a certain sniffy and sinister passage from T. S. Eliot: "Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant/Unshaven, with a pocketful of currants... Asked me in demotic French/To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel..." His ingenious, entertaining and oddly moving first novel, "The Virgin Suicides" (1993), about 1970s teenagers in the Detroit suburbs, didn't give him much of an opening. But in "Middlesex," his ingenious, entertaining and--I hate to say it--ultimately not-so-moving second novel, he finally plays his metafictional ace. This three-generation saga moves from Smyrna during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to (again) the Detroit suburbs to present-day Germany. "Smyrna endures today," his narrator, Cal Stephanides, tells us, "in a few rebetika songs and a stanza from The Waste Land." He quotes it, then continues: "Everything you need to know about Smyrna is contained in that. The merchant is rich, and so was Smyrna. His proposal was seductive, and so was Smyrna..." So crafty. No hint that anyone's speaking to us but this fictive Greek-American expatriate, who happens to be, like "The Waste Land's" Tiresias, a hermaphrodite.

"Middlesex" does as well as any book I know at melding self-conscious artifice and real-world history; ambitious novelists can dodge neither the weight of the past nor the intrusive presence of literary convention. Eugenides lets us know he knows what we know about the fictiveness of fiction; he even evokes "Tristram Shandy's" digressive account of the narrator's own conception. Yet he also gives us robustly Dickensian set pieces: the Greeks and Turks at war, the Ford assembly line, the 1967 Detroit race riots. Still, novels need people. And while you believe in most of these folks (especially the grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona), Cal eludes us. He/she is more a construct than a character, apparently existing to make a point about gender--e.g., to the artist it's irrelevant--and to connect the present day to such mythic figures as Tiresias and the Delphic oracle. Will he/she get the girl/boy? If you end up giving a Smyrna fig, you're a better man/woman than I am.