It’s not about cricket, and most Americans aren’t aware of it as a place name (there is a county of that name there, although it’s less distinctive than ours). The Virgin Suicides was always going to be a tough act to follow and Eugenides manages to avoid it being overtly autobiographical by creating a narrative voice as singular, in its own way, as the Chorus-like ‘us’ of his first book. Maybe it was critics picking on the term ‘Greek Chorus’ and the author’s surname that made this book’s handling of a Greco-American family so difficult to manage without a fairly hefty disclaimer such as a narrator whose sex is biologically ambiguous.
You will never read another book quite like this one. My memory, admittedly a bit partial and hazy after a decade, is that I read it in an afternoon in that stupidly hot summer of 2003. There are two outstanding set-pieces that seem to come from eye-witness sources: one is the fall of Smyrna in 1922, a vivid account filled with minute observations and unlike any other version I’ve seen. It’s as if the consensus version of 20th Century history is one of the problems our narrator is trying to counter. This goes double for the Detroit riots, an event mythologised and deployed by pundits on all sides of America’s lurid political spectrum. This version is curiously intimate, from the perspective of a family-run shop, and is all about trying to keep going while everything looks likely to go up in flames. Other passages seem to be culled from textbooks. In telling a story of a hyphenated family (Greek-American) through the lens of a hyphenated narrator we get a hyphenated book; it’s been criticised for being two different novels yoked uneasily together, but that’s rather the point. Things that don’t quite belong together having to function as if unified is, it appears, part of being a 20th Century American. The narrator, Cal or Callie, becomes at times an unfocussed, omniscient viewpoint, able to perceive events thousands of miles away. It’s a novel that takes risks and these generally come off.
Where it fails, it does so heroically. There’s an effort to attach symbolism from Greek mythology to a family saga about immigration and a story of Cal’s biology running athwart traditionalist Greek – well, any first-generation migrant – efforts to stick to the old values. On top of that there’s a botched magic-realist story that Cal’s the result of a transgressive relationship two generations past, but using what were at the time of writing current genetic theories and some misguided 1980s thinking on gender-identity to create the narrative persona. Making these three tiers of storytelling mesh at sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph and chapter-by-chapter levels and between those levels is pretty much impossible, yet he so nearly pulls it off it’s inspiring. Even though this book took nine years to write the execution, especially the race towards the end, seems hasty. It would require a Junot Diaz or John Crowley to achieve what Eugenides attempts here and they have other fish to fry. For a book reworking so much family history it seems oddly impersonal, a flaw also in his next book, The Marriage Plot, but that’s Eugenides almost admitting that books of the kind he wants to read can’t be written now.
By Tat Wood