The main character in Jeffrey Eugenides' second novel, Middlesex, begins life with the name Calliope, after the muse of epics. Appropriate for a 544-page book. But the tome quickly changes from unwieldy to intimately comic as we learn that Calliope was born into her Greek hotdog stand-owning family as a hermaphrodite, and chooses to become Cal at age 14. Tucked into his/her story is Cal's recounting of, as he so fittingly puts it in this age of the genome, "this roller coaster ride of a single gene through time."
What Eugenides has captured in Middlesex, though, is much more than a fascinating tale. Like his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex connects with the reader most potently in its evocation of adolescence. But where Suicides was about the "big" topic of growing older while trying to maintain a degree of innocence, Middlesex very specifically conjures up every awkward feeling you've ever had about your body, sex and identity, then wraps them in a luminous cocoon of perspective. Eugenides neither condemns nor idealizes Cal's physical plight, allowing the reader, instead, to take the character by the hand and offer reassurances.
And that, among his prodigious gifts, may be Eugenides' greatest talent: to render characters so real and deftly shaded that you feel that you've always known them. Near the book's end, you begin to dread having to leave Cal/Callie behind. Which of course is hilarious. Aside from Eugenides' ability to write laugh-out-loud prose, he's managed to craft a character that's unfocused enough to lack a single name or sexuality, but detailed enough to care about. It's artistry fully at the service of art.
Despite this craftiness, however, the novel never collapses under the weight of virtuosity. Only the passages representing middle-age come across as a balancing act. As a novelist of youth, Eugenides wisely limits his forays into maturity. When he does need to voice a grown-up, one senses the author barely maintaining his assured grasp of character and flow. But while Middlesex's lightness is occasionally hard-earned, the writing never indulges in that descent into irony so many New Yorker-style fiction writers use to hide their lack of skills. Irony is easy; sincerity like Eugenides' is difficult. He shouldn't be faulted for the occasional strain -- he's one of the few authors still writing with what is sometimes derisively called "heart."