Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Life Seen Backwards (a.k.a. first thoughts on Middlesex)

I started reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides for a read-along at Unputdownables (this is the first week, so I'm only about 60 pages in).  Now, my experience with Eugenides thus far (why does reading Eugenides always seem to need to come with a prior-experience disclaimer?) has been only with The Marriage Plot, which I read when it came out simply because it was sent to me by Powell's in my Indiespensable shipment (back when I was doing so good at keeping up with them).  It thought it was...okay.  Mostly I just really didn't connect with it—the characters, the plot, the theme, and even the writing itself.  However, people ADORE Middlesex.  The Pulitzer Board loved Middlesex.  Right?  So I've got to read it at some point and it may as well be now.

All that to say that I began reading it with some hesitation.  The first chapter wasn't great.  And then the second chapter had me [first] highly irritated and [second] entranced.  And I'm thinking.  Perhaps this is Eugenides? Or maybe only Eugenides to me, but this quality of being simultaneously impressed and disdainful has settled over me during both of his books so far.  Is that a reflection of the author's feelings/personality or something he's hoping to evoke? Or is it just me being a little bit snotty?  I don't know. But interesting thought.

What left me entranced was the description of the grandmother's, erm, relationship, when she was young.  I really enjoyed how it was written, I could picture the characters and setting, and I was planted in the fictional dream.  If you've read it, you know of what I speak.  If you have not read it, well, I don't want to spoil it, but suffice to say that it is related to tough times in a small town.  Maybe.  Anyhow, (when the narrator kept his nose out of it at least,) the whole thing was captivating.

The great irritation stemmed from the point of view it was written in (first person semi-omniscient or something like that) that kept jolting me out of the story being told.  The high point of aggravation was the part where he rewinds time back to when his grandmother was young.  How those sentences were written simply didn't hold up to Pulitzer status.  In my opinion, of course.  They were highly conspicuous to me because it was impossible to not compare it to a similar type of scene in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.  And really, there is simply no comparison because Vonnegut composed one of the most amazing things ever in that scene. Anything else would necessarily pale in comparison. I actually had to put Middlesex down for a few seconds because I was annoyed about the whole Pulitzer thing.  (See?  That disgust that is so ready to rear its ugly head?  I'm not usually like that.  What's the deal? Who really compares authors like that? As if nobody is ever allowed to rewind the story ever again? Ugh.)  But because my subconscious won't leave me alone unless I actually compare them for realz, even though I feel like that makes me a little bit of a terrible human being, here they are.

[from Middlesex, 2002 by Jeffrey Eugenides]
And so now, having been born, I'm going to rewind the film, so that the pink blanket flies off, my crib scoots across the floor as my umbilical cord reattaches, and I cry out as I'm sucked back between my mother's legs.  She gets really fat again.  Then back some more as a spoon stops swinging and a thermometer goes back into its velvet case. Sputnik chases its rocket trail back to the launching pad and polio stalks the land.  There's a shot of my father as a twenty-year-old clarinetist, playing an Artie Shaw number into the phone, and then he's in church, age eight, being scandalized by the price of candles; and next my grandfather is untaping his first U.S. dollar bill over a cash register in 1931.  Then we're out of America completely; we're in the middle of the ocean, the sound track sounding funny in reverse. A steamship appears, and up on a deck a lifeboat is curiously rocking; but then the boat docks, stern first, and we're up on dry land again, where the film unspools, back at the beginning...

[from Slaughterhouse Five: or the Children's Crusade, 1969 by Kurt Vonnegut]
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again. 

Actually, typing it out made me realize that I was probably mostly just offended that a pregnant woman is described (by a man) as "really fat".  I'm not an easily-offended sort of person but THAT gets my ire up.  After continuing on to read the third chapter my irritation was mostly diffused—I still don't care for the narrator/narration style very much, but I'm quite interested to see where the story leads.  (Still, that Vonnegut passage is the bees knees.)


  1. I've read all three of Eugenides' books and loved them all -- and I'm intrigued by how different each one is. Middlesex was completely not what I was expecting. I hope you like it as you get farther into it. I know The Marriage Plot really annoyed a lot of people, it just worked for me.

    1. There are definitely things about Eugenides that I like, that keep me reading, but he does have a way of ruffling my feathers!

  2. I wasn't in love with The Marriage Plot, though I thought Eugenides wrote well and handled the difficulties of mental illness (both living with it and loving somebody with it) well.

    I listened to Middlesex and that's what kept my interest. I think I would have put the book down if I'd been reading it. There's probably enough meat in there to keep you interested, too, if you stick it out, but perhaps moving on to another book is more worth your time.

    1. The next section was better for me. I am glad that I'm reading it with a group simply because the deadlines keep me on top of it. Middlesex is kind of one of those books that I feel like I should have read, so that keeps me going too!


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