Myth and Folklore

Let’s Discuss — Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn’t do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings…or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed (401)

With Middlesex Eugenides offers a historical and psychological narrative through which circular, personal, candid and humorous storytelling combine to create a mythological account of a uniquely American experience: how a teenage girl named Calliope Stephanides became a man named Cal.

I say this book tells a uniquely American experience–how is that? One conventional explanation would be Cal’s family history. His grandparents are Grecian Turks; immigrants who came to America via Ellis Island in the early 20th century. Cal’s grandparent’s are transplanted into Detroit to assimilate to and enrich American culture, to seek the traditional American Dream; freedom, job, house, car, wealth, family…children–and this is where things also get “unique”. Cal’s grandparent’s children would technically be considered sister and brother and first cousins. That’s right. First cousins. See…Cal’s grandparent’s have a secret–they are husband and wife, and brother and sister (the book goes into detail about how this came to pass) On top of that, Cal’s father/uncle, Milton, is married to his cousin, Tessie (Cal’s mother/aunt/second cousin?) Following? Drawing a diagram helps.

Against a black background they swim, a long white silken thread spinning itself out. The thread began on a day two hundred fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby’s fifth chromosome […] Hitching a ride, the gene descended a mountain and left a village behind…Crossing the ocean, it faked a romance, circled a ship’s deck, and made love in a lifeboat…It took a train to Detroit […] And then the gene moved on again, into new bodies…it took an entrance exam…it dated a future priest and broke off an engagement…always moving ahead, rushing along, only a few more curves left in the track now, Annapolis and a submarine chaser…until the biology gods knew this was their time, this was what they’d been waiting for…my destiny fell into place (210)

So sometimes when in-breeding occurs genetics can get a little tricky, or as I’m calling it unique. In a way, Cal’s genes are uniquely the same, too much of the same. Her grandparent’s secret eventually leads to a daughter/niece named Calliope, who will tell readers the story of her beginning, and other life experiences from the viewpoint of her much older self, a man named Cal. At times it was as if Calliope’s growing pains mirrored America’s. Through this generational epic the reader glimpses at wars, immigration, race riots, white flight, cultural revolution, etc.

This story is intriguing to me because it delves into a subject I have very little knowledge of–hermaphroditism. I know about gene mutations, but haven’t explored that particular mutation on the fifth chromosome; the one that manifests as a gateway to intersexual ambiguity. I think it’s fairly accurate to say hermaphrodites, while having always existed, are still taboo in most hyper-sexualized, western cultures. And so by tackling a taboo subject so elegantly, I feel like Eugenides wrote something that really challenges the notion of normality…

And so strange a new possibility is rising. Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind (479)

Reading about Calliope’s self-discovery about her body, family, gender, sexuality, love and acceptance was refreshing and–you guessed it–unique.

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Let’s Discuss — My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

I am nothing but a corpse, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from the vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below (3)

Let me begin by saying this book is very well written. The narrative isn’t provided solely by one or two characters–it’s told by a ranging cast of other persons, animals and even inanimate objects*. The title of each chapter will introduce the reader to the speaker, who will subsequently narrate their point of view.

Pamuk integrates folkloric and religious elements of Turkish culture into the novel, so readers will find myth sequences woven into the main story line. Pamuk also invites the reader to participate. In some instances, characters are aware of reader presence and they’ll acknowledge when the reader has probably formed their own opinions about what has transpired in the story. And from dialogue, readers will encounter philosophical discussions about style, semi-sarcastic, xenophobic attitudes and criticisms of western culture, and generally indifferent attitudes to what many consider to be perverted or grotesque.

Essentially, the story revolves around a man named, Black, as he unravels the mystery of a disappeared miniaturist**. Black’s primary motivation to complete this task is to win over his uncle, a prominent figure in the art community. By doing this he also hopes to rekindle his love for his cousin, Shekure. For me, Black’s character is very one dimensional.  Also a significant portion of the book revolves around Black and Shekure’s relationship…which was slightly annoying because neither is particularly interesting or likable—especially Shekure. I’d like to think Pamuk included her illogical actions and irrational modes of thinking to make a point about the role of women in Turkish society***, but that may be a stretch…I really didn’t like her.

I have to say, I put My Name is Red down quite a few times. I stand by the fact that it is superbly written, but after the first chapter, the pace slowed down and my interest didn’t return until about chapter 12. Maybe I was too eager to solve the mystery. I don’t know. I just know it didn’t meet expectations…I thought I would never put a book down which opens with a chapter titled I am a corpse.

We’re talking trees, portraits, colors, etc.

** An artist whose task it was to draw in red certain words or letters in manuscripts; a painter of miniature pictures or portraits, as on china or ivory, characterized by fineness of detail

*** I am not a feminist, or  historian, or anthropologist or anything like that…and I know next to nothing about Turkey so…that’s just a guess–semi-educated guess.

Let’s Discuss — Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father (13)

Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a much respected man in his community. Okonkwo, a very authoritarian-like figure, is driven solely by his preoccupation with power and rank. This is traced back to his relationship with his father, a lazy and non prosperous man. Regardless of circumstance, Okonkwo is able to hold everything together…that is until things fall apart.

It’s easy to read this novel and admire its simple and folkloric prose. If you’ve ever wondered why a tortoise shell is uneven and lumpy, this book will tell you why. There’s definitely something fable-esque(?) about it.  At times the story is so straightforward and uncomplicated, I found myself wondering when any actual conflict would ensue. Okonkwo seems to have everything under control. He’s a stern man–mean even. And he won’t be overcome by any other.

It’s also easy to read this novel and conclude Okonkwo holds a negative attitude toward women. He associates questionable* traits and actions with women. Accusations and criticisms of men behaving femininely are thrown around frequently. So…I would say in order to “enjoy” this book, the reader may have to step out of the mindset which tells them to be offended (if offended) and realize that’s just how it is… e.g:

It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansmen, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent (124)

So when do things fall apart? Ironically, they begin with Okonkwo doing something considered feminine and then being sent away for seven years. Okonkwo being the thriving creature he is, fairs well during his absence, but what he returns to is too much, even for him. His village has been divided in two by a new threat; men who look and live nothing like Okonkwo.

It’s hard to read the last fifty pages of this book and not feel resentment towards the white men who come and take over their villages. The thing is, despite how extreme or violent the penal system seemed for Okonkwo and his fellow villagers–it was their system. Their system eradicated the imbalances. It functioned…until the white man arrived, like a virus, spreading their faith and governance. Okonkwo cannot overcome this power struggle, but he refuses to let another man tell him how to lead his life. And so Okonkwo becomes a martyr.

*By questionable, I mean generally perceived to be bad. I say questionable because for obvious reasons I beg to differ.