The Book Club

Let’s Play “What Could Have Been”

Dear John,

I was so happy to read your dispatch! I was so relieved! I felt like the world’s worst curmudgeon when I read this book. All that good cheer and good-natured wonder at the ways of the world. All that fine, felicitous, well-observed prose. All that deep research and fascinating history—of Turkish-Greek relations, of Ford Motor Company, of Detroit, of the Nation of Islam, of genetics. And for what? As you say, a sprawling multigenerational saga with an act of sibling or cousin incest in each generation and lots of eerie and symbolically freighted coincidences, all ending in the creation of Callie, the world’s wisest, most mature 14-year-old freak of nature. In other words, The Thornbirds meets One Hundred Years of Solitude. That’s the substance of the book, an immigrant saga spiced with magical realism. All the borrowings from John Colapinto, E.O. Wilson, and even David Lynch (the grotesqueries at the end) rest on the surface, like sugary commercial frosting.

I kept putting the book down in vexation, thinking there would be no end to Eugenides’ genial garrulousness and overreliance on eccentricity. How much foreshadowing of the psychosexual horrors to come, how many Don DeLillo-esque secret histories of public figures can a single book contain? (We learn that the founder of the Nation of Islam was no black man—he was Jimmy Zizmo, the book’s trickster figure, a swarthy Greek bootlegger living in Detroit and relative by marriage of Callie’s grandmother.) Then I’d pick up the volume again, because I’d grown genuinely fond of Callie and wanted to know how she would manage the transition from girl to boy. Besides, I’m nursing a newborn, and sprawling multigenerational sagas demand exactly the amount of attention you are able to spare when all your mental and physical energy bypasses your brain and goes directly into, um, another part of your anatomy.

I’m glad I kept reading, for two reasons. The first is that, despite the warnings, the psychic horrors never transpire, which is a relief. Eugenides is too lighthearted a writer to pull them off. (What I suspect Eugenides was aiming at, but lacked the darkness to achieve, was an immigrant intergenerational tragicomedy in a Rothian vein.) Instead, I began to grasp what seemed to me the intellectual heart of the book: the desire to posit an analogy between modern genetics and classical Greek notions of destiny. The analogy isn’t fully worked through, but it’s of surprising relevance. The Greek myths suggest that we can explain the savage accidents of nature, and therefore all of human history and suffering, as the byproduct of the gods’ narcissistic desires and illicit copulations. Replace “gods” with “forebears” and you have evolution, in all its breathtaking glory and sublime indifference to moral values.

And second, I finally reached the part of the book where you understand what must have made Eugenides want to write—to become a writer, I mean, and also to write this story. I’m talking about Callie’s first encounters with sex in the 1970s, which, since Eugenides is exactly my age, parallel mine and are as good a description as anything I’ve read of that godawful period of life in that unforgivable decade. Eugenides obviously experienced all those pubescent make-out parties and bad liquor and slobbery joints just the way I did. That is to say, he thought he was the freak, the sexual misfit, with his innate revulsion and outsider’s fear of being found wanting, rather than his wanton, callow, socially more graceful peers—who, in retrospect, seem much more monstrous. Callie’s first encounters with both gross and blissful teenage sex, which occur with the brother and then the sister in the super-WASPy Grosse Pointe family she befriends, as well as her terror of being found out for the hermaphroditic oddity that she is, inspire by far the best writing in the book. Some of it is really splendid, like the bit you quoted—though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it Joycean.

Let’s engage in what-could-have-been-ism here. You say: “There’s nothing more harrowing than being confused about that fundamental building block of identity. There’s enough inherent drama in that situation to fuel several novels.” Can you describe that drama, and imagine how it could have been worked into this novel?