We move now into the second act of Middlesex, which deals with the narrator’s parents, and early childhood. The novel continues to hit on the themes of identity, the American dream, and duality, but moves here into a politically charged section that deals more strictly with historic events than the rest of the book.
The first half of the novel, as a whole, is inundated by war and the idea of war. Desdemona and Lefty (the narrator’s grandparents) were forced to leave their home, near Smyrna, when Turks invaded and burned everything to the ground. The burning of Smyrna was an endpoint to war — the Greco-Turkish war which raged from 1919 to 1922: a war which, to most history books, was eclipsed by another war which ended just a year earlier in Europe. Lefty and Desdemona aren’t involved in the war at all — in fact, the majority of their life revolves around an idyllic hamlet, with a war playing only a backdrop. What affects them are the fires — fires which rage after most hostilities have ended.
The burning of Smyrna.
In the second portion of Middlesex World War 2 enters the picture. Once again, Cal’s family is largely untouched by the raging war — his father enlists at one point, but ends up studying in Annapolis rather than deploying. The war is happening, and makes its presence known in censor-riddled notes to home, in film reels playing at the local multiplex, and in the general sense of claustrophobia, but it does not invade the Stephanides home.
And then there are the Detroit Race Riots. The riots weren’t a war, per se (though who makes that definition? Only the victors, and they so rarely choose to label something war or battle when its against their own people). Still, to anyone present, it must have felt like a war. The national guard and military forces entered the streets, men in uniforms and riding tanks went down the broad avenues of Detroit, and the sides were clearly drawn: the uniforms worn not in the clothing of the soldiers, but imprinted in the very pigment of their skin. In the context of the novel it presents a nice parallelism to the grandparents flight from Smyrna, due to a fire: here, the Stephanides leave Detroit after its own fire.
Soldiers in the streets after the Detroit Race Riots. (As pictured in TIME Magazine)
What is daring in Middlesex is not merely writing about the race riots, but the perceptions of the characters regarding it. The reader already knows that Desdemona is racist: she spends a good ten pages, earlier in the book, railing against the black people in Detroit and wondering why they don’t clean up — she spends the entire novel trying to figure out the race of her sister-in-laws husband, to determine whether he is a good man or not. It is not, however, Desdemona or Lefty who espouses the racist speech at this moment, however — it is American-born, Detroit-raised Milton, their son (and the narrator’s father) who casts the strict divide between them and us. He forbids his daughter from talking to a young, black law student; he plies local (white) police officers with free coffee to keep an eye on his establishment; he asks, of one black men, why his race can’t “just be normal.”
That question encapsulates xenophobia: Why can’t you be normal? Why can’t you be like me? Here, Eugenides uses it to point out white privilege, and denial of alternative culture — but it parallels, of course, our narrator herself (or himself, depending on where in the book one is). One of the books early themes is “fitting in” — and nowhere is it more clear that someone does not match, that someone does not fit, that someone is “not normal” then when he wears his differences in the features of his face.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the war and the race riots, there is a woman marrying her second cousin, a child miraculously remembering her own baptism, and a hermaphrodite being born. While Middlesex is, at times ponderous, it can hardly be said to be trivial. The themes intermingle in a really beautiful manner, tied together as delicately as the silk threads from Desdemona’s cocoonery (see what I did there? Huh? Huh?)