#newworldnovel is a feature in which we get people to tell us which book they’d choose if they had to leave earth today and go to a brand new world empty of all our literature. Would they be choose something to comfort themselves or would they choose something to help whatever may live or come to live in this new world?
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
For some, the idea that literature can be edifying is about as palatable (what they really mean is fashionable) as gothic pastoral or Ivanhoe but boo to them.
The constraints of the concept of taking just one novel to a new world are somewhat ill thought-through but on the presumption that the people who are to populate this world will have this book and this alone to fulfil their literary needs until they start producing their own, I rather think it should be edifying. Not in a Rudyard Kipling, If, white, colonial, straight manifesto for manhood kind of way but in a more empathetic, intelligent, liberal, destabilising sense. The sort of book in which you might find solace or at least interest in after a hard day’s work trying to make crops grow in space dust or learning how to deal with the general lack of necessities this world contains for successful human existence. Along with its length and its beautiful style, structure and engaging plot, Middlesex just might have the edge in particular over other literature in terms of its thematic suitability for the space based reader.
The immigrant experience dominates the novel as we follow Cal, our hero’s family’s progress from the western seaboard of Turkey through the great Greek population exchange after World War One to Detroit, encountering Henry Ford, the production line, the Nation of Islam, the Race Riots and the slow collapse of a city once considered the thumping heart of America in all its modern(ist) glory. Eugenides presents an adroit deconstruction of the topography of immigration: the oddly combined and conflicting processes of assimilation and alienation. Every now and then, critics, usually American, feel the need to trot out like some poor child at a tweenage beauty pageant a new contender for the Great American Novel, the magnum opus, which would define the American reality as well as the dream and what sets Middlesex apart from the usual fusty competitors for this doubtful prize is its consistent determination to voice the subaltern. A perspective which might be of some use when we find ourselves not just hundreds or thousands of miles away from our birthplace and culture but lightyears, a planet of immigrants. Maybe, just maybe, if we read Eugenides’ carefully enough we might be able to avoid the mistakes of the American experience and not create subalterns among the subalterns, not impose a hegemonic, monolithic shared cultural identity upon our planet and embrace cosmopolitan, anarchic, self-expression. One can always hope.
Another, hopeless, dream of mine in prescribing Middlesex for our new planetary base, is that lessons might be taken from its engagement with the queer. In our current planet, we limit ourselves not just to encoding and enforcing national hierarchies, frameworks and structures but sexual performance and gender presentation are just as much a statement of power, of clout, of the pecking order as anything else. We may be chipping away at the structural privilege of the cis straight male bit by bit in this world but wouldn’t the opportunity be all too worth taking to create a new society reimagined minus the bullshit. Middlesex forces the reader into an intersex perspective, Cal(liope)’s sex and sexuality is consistently fluid and changeable. If this were to be the canonical text of our new planet, could it be safe to assume that fluidity might become the cultural norm or better yet that the norm might be jettisoned?
So there it is, a book for a stranger, queerer, better planet.
Harry Prance has just graduated from university and is meant to be embracing the real world. What this means in actuality is an overdraft, bills and the tyranny of the suit and tie. Look forward to it kids. When he’s not busy, using galleries and pubs as blast shelters from reality, he has the dubious honour of being the elder brother of this website’s purveyor.
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