This is a risky, ambitious novel but it’s done in such an honest and liberating tone, and Cal is such an engaging protagonist that it builds into the novel’s charm. I highly recommend this.
To really break it down and simplify it, it’s a sprawling incestuous family drama over three generations that culminates in a grandson trying to come to terms with his identity as a middle-class second-generation Orthodox Greek American who is a hermaphrodite. It’s unashamedly verbose with a lyrical sentencing structure and elaborate imagery but you would kind of figure this out since the introduction goes like this:
By now, at the age of forty-one, I feel another birth coming on. After decades of neglect, I find myself thinking about departed great-aunts and –uncles, long-lost grandfathers, unknown fifth cousins, or, in the case of an inbred family like mine, all those things in one. And so before it’s too late I want to get it down for good: this roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through the nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where I drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother’s own mid-western womb.
Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic too.
I mean, that pretty much sets the whole tone of the novel. The plot is deliberately epic, the humour is witty and self-aware, there are various historical references and breaking of the fourth wall.
But at no point does it feel indulgent, even though it’s quite autobiographical like the fact that the protagonist gets into a tentative relationship with a Japanese American. Instead it feels like a cathartic release for Cal who’s trying to sort out how it all happened so he can move on and I think for me, that’s one of the way the novel draws you in; at times it was very raw and honest.
There’s also so many things happening, I don’t even know where to start. It starts with his grandparents and his parents relationship and despite being the protagonist Cal doesn’t even appear until about just before half-way. Jeffrey put elaborate details into every aspect of Cal’s family that’s it’s difficult to summarise what happened without feeling like you didn’t do the novel justice because just saying it’s about a family drama or a hermaphrodite always makes me feel like I’m missing the crux of the plot.
Despite all this, there were certain aspects of the novel that I felt that Jeffrey didn’t go into sufficient detail, despite the novel being a door-stopper, like his relationship with Julie, and what happened to Cal after he came home and his struggles with his identity, but I feel as if that was Jeffrey’s intention, like it was to send a message that life is never clean and not all loose ends will ever be tied up so there’s just some things that you’ll never know. I also felt like it ended a bit suddenly, but then again, I don’t think Cal was trying to tell us his whole life, just everything up until the end of his childhood.
Speaking of which, there’s a ton of symbolism and it’s very metaphorical and allegorical, for example, the fact that Cal’s brother is referred to as “Chapter Eleven” and Greek mythology is interwoven throughout the novel. But you don’t even have to understand or appreciate any of that stuff to still enjoy it (I sure as hell didn’t).
I kept seeing it everywhere on various “Must reads” and “Top 100” but to be honest, I thought it was kind of pretentious so I never bothered. But I picked it up because I needed to break up my crime fiction spree and I should have done it much sooner. I have absolutely nothing snide to say about this, I only have gushing words, I really loved it.
On another note
I’m curious to see what the LGBTQ and intersex community have to say about this, and how it’d be received if it was published in today’s social atmosphere, given that gender identity is such a hot topic. I think it’s done in an inoffensive manner, although I’m sure Cal’s experience and how accepting he was of being a male is surely the exception to the rule, but I’m not as well educated on gender identity so I’ll most likely stand corrected.