Lit Crit: Middlesex
Traditional "book reviews" treat books as consumer products rather than as experiences. Lit Crit is the only book review in the world that uses drink as a critical tool. I get a group of friends to read a book and then we meet to talk about it. We get a little lit, and we crit. The rest is mystery.
What follows is a transcript of the inaugural meeting held on October 17 in my living room in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Todd (your host) ... bourbon
Jackie (shiftless waitress) ... Uzo
Marcus (web monkey and world traveler) ... gin and tonic
Mark (TV director turned üm-papa) ... rum and diet coke
Karen (breakfast connoisseur, Utne magazine editor) ... red wine
Middlesex, an epic novel about the life of a hermaphrodite by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar Straus & Giroux)
Marcus: I think the last fifty pages [of Middlesex] are by far the strongest. I didn't even like the book that much until I read the last fifty pages.
Karen: Oh my god, I'm loving the book so far.
Jackie: I'm not.
Mark: Really? I've enjoyed it all the way through.
Todd: I actually have the last thirty pages yet to read.
Marcus: That sucks, because the last fifty pages are definitely ...
Todd: Let's talk about the ending first, because you never get to read about the ending in a book review. And this is the anti-review.
- - -
Jackie: At one point I read the back cover and I'm like, is this a biography? Because ...
Mark: Well, yeah, because he grew up in Michigan ...
Marcus: Grosse Point.
Mark: ... lives in Germany ...
Karen: And he's Greek. And the photo of him is like ...
Mark: He looks like a beat poet.
Todd: Or a badly beaten one.
Marcus: That's an awful ... a terrible photograph.
Karen: Oh, I love that photograph, he's mocking you, like: Do you think I'm real or not? Do you think I've written my own story or not?
Marcus: It's so awful that maybe it's good. I don't know. It looks like Glamour Shots at the Mall of America.
- - -
Jackie: Sex scenes in this book ... I was never turned on, or ... It was just sort of ...
Marcus: Yeah, but it really changes in the second half of the book. I mean you go to the opposite extreme. He is obviously super-vague about, you know, his specific genitalia for instance, and of course you're curious ...
Jackie: Exactly. What is going on?
Marcus: For instance, toward the end, he's working at a place called the Sixty-Niner in San Francisco, where he's actually part of a sex show, and this guy that he met on the road, named Presto, runs this sex club. And he's basically part of the freak show, but it's pretty interesting because ... there he's completely out in the open, and I think that all starts with the earlier experience in New York with Dr. Luce, who puts his legs up in stirrups and brings in other doctors and it's completely clinical, and he even says his genitals are "medicalized." And I think at that point when he's categorized, which he wasn't through the whole early part of the book, he starts getting an identity based on his own journey across the West ...
Todd: But all the way through. Even when it's sex at the end when he understands what's happening to him, if he ever really truly does, I mean, he's always pretty whacked out by it, but it's never really sex as an erotic thing, it's sex as a very clinical ... even when he's doing it with the Object.
Jackie: With the object?
Mark: This girl that he's in love with, he calls her the Object of Desire.
Jackie: But she must know fully what's ...
Marcus: No. She never knows.
Jackie: What does he have, anyway? Does he have a dick or not?
Marcus: He has something he calls a "budding crocus." So what it is, it's when you're in the womb, it's this gonadal tissue, and you either become male or female based on ...
Todd: It doesn't sound like he can actually use it, like a male.
Marcus: No, it's like an extended clitoris.
Mark: Everyone starts out that way and at a certain point the body, due to the chromosomes, goes one way or the other, but all the same parts are there in the beginning, and in his case it's overdeveloped but it's not the size of a normal penis.
Todd: He's really neither female nor male, because he can't have kids, he doesn't have a womb or anything, and ...
Jackie: Well, this baptism happened, and even though people weren't as he says directing their attention towards his genitalia, I imagine ... I mean, you would look. At a baby.
Mark: At that point it was inside, though. Even as a teenager when other people saw him naked or when a guy tried to get him drunk and laid down with him ... or her at the time ... even they didn't notice it was there.
Jackie: Well, how could he shower with other men in the locker room?
Mark: Well they talked about how she avoided the girls' showers.
Marcus: At the girls' school she would keep herself covered and dress under a towel. He, or I guess it was she then, would ...
Jackie: She had no balls or anything ...
Marcus: It was undescended testicles.
Mark: Right. They hadn't dropped yet. And she had no breasts, basically. So.
Karen: Did you know that something like 15% of all people ... I've read this ... have some kind of ... genital ... they have like a third nipple, or some kind of reproductive variation.
Todd: That's almost one in five, which means that one of us ... has some kind of ... sexual issue ...
Jackie: I don't think my gonads are gonna drop.
Mark: A watched pot never boils.
- - -
Karen: Okay, so how many of you have heard this word periphescence? I just love that word. It's the beginning of falling in love, when you're all glowing. It's toward the beginning of the book ...
Mark: I think even as a guy, though, he has to pee sitting down.
Marcus: (Reading from Middlesex) "At restaurants I began to use the men's rooms. This was perhaps the hardest adjustment. I was scandalized by the filth of men's rooms, the rank smells and pig sounds, the grunting and huffing from the stalls. Urine was forever puddled on the floors. Scraps of soiled toilet paper adhered to the commodes. When you entered a stall, more often than not a plumbing emergency greeted you, a brown tide, a soup of dead frogs. To think that a toilet stall had once been a haven for me!" Yeah, you're right, I don't think he ever mentions urinals.
Mark: Todd and I were talking about that part before you guys came. Todd was saying that the book was very down on men.
Todd: Slanted against men, you know? As soon as he becomes a man, the whole world of men is disgusting to him.
Mark: Smelly gross bathrooms, and blah blah blah, and I said, That's what it is, though. Men's bathrooms are filthy and gross.
Jackie: But men say the same thing about women's bathrooms. Because at the restaurant where I work, guys sometimes have to clean the women's, and they're like, Oh.
Todd: You're talking to someone who ... I mean, Mark, you didn't think women farted until you were like 21 or something ...
Mark: No, I knew that they did, I just didn't want to think about the fact that they did.
- - -
Marcus: I thought when she had her transformation when she ran away from the clinic in New York, I thought that's when, instead of being defined by others, he became happy. And even his narration changed. I mean, I don't know why I had this negative ongoing notion of what the book would be, but I thought it would be the equivalent to some corporate sensitivity training: "How do you think it might feel to be a hermaphrodite," you know? But after she becomes a he, the character gets stronger, and when she comes back to Detroit at the end, it's like he's ...
Mark: Finally comfortable with herself.
Todd: So why did we have to go through 300 pages of epic family history to get there?
Jackie: Yeah. There's so much of ... Desdemona thinking: Bad things are gonna happen because we married as brother and sister, and then first cousins marry, and ...
Karen: I think culturally we want to completely remove ourselves from our family history. We want to do something different, something bold. It's not that honored anymore to do what your parents did, you know? Yet people have genetic predispositions, and biologies ...
Jackie: I think I have no history.
Todd: That's because you haven't fictionalized it. If you sat down and fictionalized your history, then you'd have one.
- - -
Jackie: Well, but then I start to, and I think about my abusive alcoholic German grandfather with my German grandmother married at nineteen because she's pregnant, cheating on her all the while, beating her ... We gave my grandmother a family history book to write her story in, and she pushed it back across the table and said, There's nothing you want to read in my history.
Mark: Actually, it sounds pretty good.
Jackie: Which is very German, and I think, Do I want to carry on the tradition? But how much of that tradition do I know? Or am I merely American?
Todd: Maybe that's what he's getting at. It's interesting to look at the book as a metaphor for sexuality and identity in the Western world. Because aren't we all hermaphrodites these days in a manner of speaking? Men are supposed to get in touch with their feminine side, and there's so much melding of values and pasts in terms of what we stand for as a culture.
Jackie: Yeah, but didn't it used to be that way too?
Mark: Well, the Spartans ... the warriors had young male lovers so that in war they would protect them because they wouldn't want their lover to die. They'd have that relationship to protect them, more than just brothers in arms, no pun intended.
- - -
Karen: Okay, so I was out in California a couple of weeks ago, and I had the most amazing experience in the Napa Valley. I was there for a conference but I went a day early. I decided to go to this roadside hotel thing in Calistoga, which is like this spa town, and I'm having dinner by myself and this guy comes up and we start talking, telling me all kinds of things about my life that he couldn't have known unless he was like ...tied into some other universe. He started talking to me about why I don't have kids. He says, You've got to stay away from men because they don't know what they're doing right now. And I don't know about that.
Todd: Yet you bring it up.
Karen: I bring it up because I was thinking about the hermaphrodite, and what does that symbolize in our culture right now?
Todd: Is it confusion? In a way, I think maybe we're sexually confused, as a nation at least.
Mark: Why, though?
Jackie: If I went to a porno with a bunch of women together ...
Jackie: Totally excited.
Mark: Wait, wait. What are we talking about?
Jackie: I don't find myself confused. For example, my ex-boyfriend would say that he felt that if he was a good father, then his son would not grow up to be a homosexual, which I think is so funny. Because I don't think you can control those things.
Todd: I don't mean that individually we have sexual identity issues. I mean that as a culture, we don't know how to define the sexes anymore. Women are doing whatever they want to do, men don't know what their role is ...
Mark: But do they need to? I mean, who the hell cares?
Marcus: I care. There are things as a man that I think I missed. It's like the Iron John shit. You lose the father to the industrial ... My dad was never home and I never really had the initiation into the village, and as ridiculous as that sounds, I think that's legitimate.
Karen: I do too.
Marcus: I haven't had any big victories in my life, I haven't gone out on any big hunt.
Mark: What do you mean victories?
Marcus: I don't know. Something that involves danger, where I'm dwarfed by something I'm scared of.
Jackie: Only nature can do that. We haven't evolved all that much. I want to raise my kids with sticks and stones. Go play. I don't want them to sit in front of a computer.
Todd: Do you think it's technology that's taking us away from our ...
Jackie: I do believe that to be challenged by something bigger than yourself is important. And I don't think much else can do it: Nature provides the ultimate step up from who you are. I mean, you are, simply, a little rock in the scree.
Todd: In the scree?
Mark: That was beautiful. Say it again.
Jackie: (Gesturing) I give you the finger now.
About the author: