One is often tempted to give a perfect rating to a book merely because one can find nothing wrong with it. When I read this book, though, I was reassured in my conservative ratings by the way the writing transported me to unforeseeable heights.
An absolute marvel. An astounding piece of literature.
Basically, the story is that of Calliope Stephanides, third-generation American greek girl, who, due a recessive gene that was expressed after two generations of inbreeding, is a hermaphrodite. She has both male and female sex organs. Born a girl, her male identity will assert itself toward puberty, with earth-trembling consequences to her existence. But in a larger context, this is a book about identity and belonging.
Dual identities: Greek and American, Male and Female, White and Ethnic.
Note: this review contains spoilers, not so much in what is stated, but rather in the quotes. If you wish to avoid having anything spoiled, I suggest you don’t read the quotes, or just skim them.
Cal starts the story at his grandparents in Smyrna just before the routing of the Greek army by the Turks, in the first world war. They come to America, settle in Detroit, have children, who have children, which spawns Cal. In the backdrop, we are treated to the conflict of Greeks and Turks, Ford’s car-making factory and the heavy-handed treatment of employees, the rum-running of the prohibition, the birth of the Nation of Islam, the second world war, race riots and the civil rights movement, the slow downfall of Detroit. Cal is both a omniscient narrator and a personal voice, just because he decides so, and we forgive him the transgression of the literary code because, after all, this is a book about transgressions. And the writing is beautiful, and insightful.
Beautiful like this:
‘And so it began. He played “Begin the Beguine” against Tessie’s collarbone. He played “Moonface” against her smooth cheeks. Pressing the clarinet right up against the red toenails that had so dazzled him, he played “It Goes to Your Feet.” With a secrecy they didn’t acknowledge, Milton and Tessie drifted off to quiet parts of the house, and there, lifting her skirt a little, or removing a sock, or once, when nobody was home, pulling up her blouse to expose her lower back, Tessie allowed Milton to press his clarinet to her skin and fill her body with music. At first it only tickled her. But after a while the notes spread deeper into her body. She felt the vibrations penetrate her muscles, pulsing in waves, until they rattled her bones and made her inner organs hum.’Insightful like this:
‘This is my country,” Lefty said, and to prove it, he did a very American thing: he reached under the counter and produced a pistol.’Sometimes, the writing is just downright, ribald funny. Like in this paragraph where he describes, movie-like, the initial success of the family restaurant:
‘“Give me two fried whiskey down!” Milton shouts, showing off his new lingo. “Dry white, 68, hold the ice!” Close-up of the cash register ringing open and closed; of Milton’s hands counting money; of Lefty putting on his hat and leaving unnoticed. Then more eggs; eggs being cracked, fried, flipped, and scrambled; eggs arriving in cartons through the back door and coming out on plates through the front hatch; fluffy heaps of scrambled eggs in gleaming yellow Technicolor; and the cash register banging open again; and money piling up. Until, finally, we see Milton and Tessie, dressed in their best, following a real estate agent through a big house.’What particularly struck me is the way language itself is decrypted. A character that is both male and female necessarily has a particular voice, and this is not merely used but addressed in it’s own right. For instance:
‘Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.”’Cal even manages to capture fundamental ways a child perceives the world. In this paragraph, Cal is fooling around in a bath with a girl her age:
‘We aren’t kissing. This game is far less serious, more playful, free-style, but we’re gripping each other, trying not to let the other’s slippery body go, and our knees bump, our tummies slap, our hips slide back and forth. Various submerged softnesses on Clementine’s body are delivering crucial information to mine, information I store away but won’t understand until years later.’Sometimes, the story is so poignant it is heart-wrenching:
‘and finally one morning he looked up into the face of the woman who’d been the greatest love of his life and failed to recognize her. And then there was another kind of blow inside his head; blood pooled in his brain for the last time, washing even the last fragments of his self away.’What I loved is the way insight is transmitted in such a curt yet eloquent manner. Cal’s father Milton is a republican. What better way to describe his trouble with literature than to evoke the pinnacle of republican lterature?
‘“Here’s a good one,” said Milton, holding up Milton. The only thing that disappointed him was that the series didn’t contain a book by Ayn Rand.’Or how better to capture the sixties then the following sentence about Cal’s older brother?
‘He bought a motorcycle. He started meditating. He claimed to understand 2001: A Space Odyssey, even the ending.’There is a recurring reference to literary tropes such as Chekhov’s Gun. In a few sections, a gun manifests itself, Cal does more than mention it, he overtly expounds on Chekhov. We are left to wonder when the gun will go off. One wonders how far the story can go without delving into science. When Cal does, it is brief and humorous. It feels like a debunking, as in this passage about the hunter-gatherer anthropological model:
‘Why can’t men communicate? (Because they had to be quiet on the hunt.) Why do women communicate so well? (Because they had to call out to one another where the fruits and berries were.) Why can men never find things around the house? (Because they have a narrow field of vision, useful in tracking prey.) Why can women find things so easily? (Because in protecting the nest they were used to scanning a wide field.) Why can’t women parallel-park? (Because low testosterone inhibits spatial ability.) Why won’t men ask for directions? (Because asking for directions is a sign of weakness, and hunters never show weakness.) This is where we are today. Men and women, tired of being the same, want to be different again.’I was utterly spellbound reading this book. In another transgression, Cal switches to magic realism in describing his father’s death.
‘Milton no longer had any brain waves, so it was understandable why, hovering in the Cadillac, he might have forgotten that the Zebra Room had burned down long ago. He was mystified at not being able to find it. All that was left of the old neighborhood was empty land. It seemed that most of the city was gone, as he gazed down.’Utterly spellbound.