What to say about a book that is kinda, sorta about everything . . . and is so sublime at it.
If I had to pick one word or concept to represent the book — it would be the prefix “inter” which means between and among.
. . . and so many more.
Between. Among. Eugenides gets right to it when his narrator, Cal, talks about relaying emotion through words:
“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.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. ”
Cal is very much between and among. Even though his story is very much about being between and among the genders, generations, countries, socio-economic classes, transformations inside and out, it was very easy as a reader to hook into the complexity and and see it as my own. I am just a little younger than Cal and Italian American, not Greek American, but I recognized so much of what Cal was talking about in my own life. You don’t need to be born intersex to experience Gender Trouble, either. One of my most fruitful ponderings after reading this book was thinking about the performative aspects of . . . almost everything in life. It boggles. Maybe we are all more between and among that we like to acknowledge.
“I was beginning to understand something about normality. Normality wasn’t normal. It couldn’t be. If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself. But people-and especially doctors- had doubts about normality. They weren’t sure normality was up the job. And so they felt inclined to give it a boost.”
If this wasn’t enough of a triumph, the book is exhaustively researched without ever making you feel like you are reading a history book, the metaphors are fresh and exhilarating:
“It was like autumn, looking at her. it was like driving up north to see the colors.”
“He was like a statue being chiseled away from the inside, hollowed out. As more and more of his thoughts gave him pain, Milton had increasingly avoided them.”
“Dr. Philbosian smelled like an old couch, of hair oil and spilled soup, of unscheduled naps.”
Eugenides is terribly perceptive and clever and funny:
“You used to be able to tell a person’s nationality by the face. Immigration ended that. Next you discerned nationality via the footwear. Globalization ended that.”
“It’s then I smell smoke. “You even smoke while you brush your teeth?”
She looks at me sideways. “Menthol”, she says.”
“German wasn’t good for conversation because you had to wait to the end of the sentence for the verb, and so couldn’t interrupt.”
. . . all while being painfully heartstopping and devastating and real:
“I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand different matters, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair-cut and getting born. And in some houses people were getting old and sick and were dying, leaving others to grieve. It was happening all the time, unnoticed, and it was the thing that really mattered.”
“Can you see me? All of me? Probably not. No one ever really has.”
In short — one of the best books I’ve ever read. And I don’t say that about contemporary fiction very often.
(image: from Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s Origin of Love. I’ve been singing it in my head since staring the book.)