Small Crocus, Big Kick

Daniel Soar

  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
    Bloomsbury, 529 pp, £16.99, October 2002, ISBN 0 7475 6023 4

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.

Olympus is a reasonable location for a view of the beginnings of a disaster that is the story’s catalyst, an engine-house of flame: the reflective parts of the narration that follows deal in Odysseus, the Minotaur, and Zeus creating the world from an egg (‘the white flew up to become the sky, the yolk descended into earth’). Also Princess Si Ling-chi, who, legend records, discovered silk when a cocoon fell into her teacup as she was sitting under a mulberry tree. She instructed her maid to take the loose end, which had unravelled in the heat, and walk (she walked and walked). The silk thread reconnects us to Mount Olympus – in Justinian’s time missionaries smuggled silkworm eggs out of China to Byzantium; in Bithynios Desdemona grows silk cocoons, and she will try to take her livelihood to Detroit, though, since silkworm eggs appear on immigration officials’ list of parasites, she will be forced to abandon them. One advantage of Olympus for the storyteller is its mythical altitude, which gives the most commanding view. The other is the idea of pastoral innocence: Bithynios, with fewer than a hundred inhabitants (some, admittedly, inbred), belonged to a forgotten, unadulterated world. Modernity was below: Bursa, gently – but, as it turns out, briefly – taken from the Ottomans, ‘its quiet, declining streets abloom with minarets and cypress trees’. Everything began in 1922: from here we will descend. For the three generations of Greek Americans who people Middlesex, the mulberry trees of Mount Olympus are an appropriately antique beginning: they are the egg inside which everything began.

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