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  • "Theory Uncompromised by Practicality":Hybridity in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex
  • Debra Shostak (bio)

The intersexed body clearly challenges conceptual categories. It therefore can serve, like drag, as a case study aimed at both stimulating and troubling theoretical attempts to account for the social construction of gender, especially the relations among gender, sexuality, and the body. But because real people also inhabit intersexed bodies, suffering the social consequences of their exclusion from normatively categorized identities, more is obviously at stake in thinking about intersexuality than theory itself, as scholars such as Anne Fausto Sterling, Alice Domurat Dreger, and Suzanne J. Kessler have been mindful. The potential challenge uncovered by the exploration of the intersexed body echoes a problem that recurs in such political criticisms as feminism: the act of description, with its concomitant act of theorizing, does not necessarily support activism in the world, a politics of social change that might alter the lives of those who live on the margins. This is of course not news to scholars who regularly engage with the relation of theory to praxis, but mainstream fiction has not often taken up the challenge. Jeffrey Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize–winning comic epic Middlesex (2002), however, offers in its portrait of an intersexual protagonist a fascinating representation of the slippage that may occur between theory and what Eugenides terms "practicality" (258), in specific [End Page 383] relation to the comprehension and construction of an identity—and hence a place in the world—for the anomalous body.

The first clue that Eugenides may be tackling a practical inquiry into a theoretical problem appears in the metaphor that guides both the structure and the thematic content of the novel. In an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer, Eugenides openly courted the label of "hybrid" for the formal structure of his novel: "The book, like its hermaphroditic narrator, was meant to be a hybrid. Part third-person epic, part first-person coming-of-age tale" ("Eugenides" 76). When Eugenides weaves his story of the hermaphrodite Cal(lie) into an account of Greek immigration and assimilation to mid-twentieth-century American culture, he implicitly overdetermines the metaphor of hybridity to refer at once to the body, to cultural identity, and to narrative structure.1 Because "hybridity" is a term that gained currency in the theoretical discourse of culture during the 1990s—specifically in relation to Homi K. Bhabha's concept of the transnational subject2—it is possible that Eugenides was attracted to the metaphor for its ability to point in several directions: toward its origins in plant and animal husbandry, toward the categorically unnatural, and toward a theoretical figure for cultural positioning. Middlesex traces Cal's nonnormatively sexed body to a historical incident—the incestuous marriage of his immigrant grandparents, a plot point that brings the disparate narratives together into a "hybrid." The novel thus introduces concerns about biological essentialism, historical causality, and social transgressiveness under the complementary trope of genetics. More obviously deterministic than "hybridity," "genetics" explains Cal's gendered identity and directs the double movement of his story. Something happens to Cal's ancestors and something happens to his chromosomes, and [End Page 384] these two events, at once discrete and inextricable, motivate the plotting and limit the "who" and the "what" that Cal is.3

It is in the novel's dependence on the metaphor of hybridity that its representations may seem to founder, however, in part because of the way the metaphor itself tends to slide into something else. For example, in the most penetrating review to appear on Eugenides' novel, Daniel Mendelsohn makes two relevant claims. First, in observing that Middlesex is a "hybrid"—a Greek immigrant novel coupled with a fictional memoir about "bimorphic sexuality"—he asserts that "the graft didn't take," because the two novels fail to come together as one. Second, he charges that, as the titular metaphor implies, the novel "pretends to be about being in the middle, only to end up suggesting that you have to choose either end."4 Mendelsohn's claims may be just, but their implications are more interesting, I would suggest, than he acknowledges, precisely because of the conundrums about the nature of "sex" and of cultural positioning...


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pp. 383-412
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