I'm sure I've lamented before that too many of the "short stories" in the New Yorker these days are in fact excerpts from upcoming novels. Many of them work perfectly well as short stories (in fact, I'm frequently astounded by how well a single chapter or part of a chapter from a novel can be abridged to stand on its own so well); that's not the point. I love short stories, and I think that the crafting of a really good short story is entirely different from a novel. I count on the New Yorker to introduce me to new short-story writers and to continue to encourage and reward the old pros. Moreover, I am often annoyed when I'm reading a novel and can recall what's going to happen in a particular scene because I've already read it as a "short story."
That being said, often I love one of these "short stories" so much that I run out and buy the novel. That was the case with Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and others. Other times I am underwhelmed enough that I make a mental note not to seek out the novel. Such was the case with Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. I don't recall being particularly dazzled by the writing, but I do remember thinking that I wasn't all that interested in the tale of a teenage hermaphrodite. You see, the chapter chosen to stand as a short story in the New Yorker was the one in which the fourteen-year-old Calliope Stephanides discovers that she's not exactly the girl she has been raised to be. It just didn't interest me all that much, and I couldn't see wanting to read 500+ pages about her.
Well, the years passed, and numerous people exhorted me to read Middlesex. I don't remember who finally convinced me to give it a try, but I am so grateful! I just finished reading it yesterday and it is truly one of my favorite books of all time. I loved every minute of it. When I finally got about 75% of the way through the book and reached the chapter that I'd read in the New Yorker some 5 years ago, I was ready for that scene. Here was a case in which the chapter chosen to stand alone was one that really needed a back-story.
It may be hard to understand or believe this if you haven't read the book, but trust me: Although the narrator is telling his/her life story as a hermaphrodite, that's really not the main thrust of the novel. The biggest—and, for my money, best—chunk of the book is given over to telling about this Greek family's life both in Turkey in the 1920s and as newly arrived immigrants to the U.S. Our narrator Cal/Callie is omniscient to the point of describing being an ovum waiting to be fertilized. Every character is fully developed and believable, and the descriptions of time and place are spot-on. There are passages that made me laugh out loud and others that were so touching I brushed back tears. So to reduce this entertaining, big-hearted, sweeping family saga to "a story about a hermaphrodite" would be to miss out on its most glorious features. Really, it could be about any teenager trying to find his/her identity and way in the world—Cal/Callie just has a bit more of an obstacle to overcome than most of us do.
Eugenides has to be one of the most gifted writers I have ever come across. I think now that I must have just skimmed the short story in the New Yorker because there is no way I could have missed this. Every sentence is astonishing and delightful; honestly, I can't imagine how one writer could have produced so much gorgeous, exhilarating prose.
In short: If you, like me, put this book aside because you thought you wouldn't like it, please give it a chance. Those Pulitzer folks really knew what they were doing when they gave this one the big prize. Eugenides is a creative genius both in terms of story-telling and prose-writing.