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A task ‘as long as the Trojan War’

NEW YORK – Gus Vlahavas, restaurateur and community leader, is spreading the word. «Do you see that gentleman?» he says to two customers just stepping inside Tom’s Restaurant, pointing to a booth in the back corner where a dark-haired man with a goatee and thin mustache is being photographed. «He wrote this,» Vlahavas says, looking behind him, where a thick book stands on a ledge at eye level. The book’s cover has a yellow-green, tropical design, featuring a naked figure rising from a flower. The title is «Middlesex» and the author’s name is Jeffrey Eugenides. Jeffrey Eugenides, expatriate writer, has come «home» to the Greek diner in Brooklyn where he enjoyed tuna melt sandwiches as an unknown writer and now digs into a tuna melt as author of one of the year’s most praised novels. A native of Detroit, the 42-year-old Eugenides has lived the past few years in Germany (he received a fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin), but returned to the United States this fall for a cross-country tour of «Middlesex.» He has stopped by the diner for an interview, to pay his respects and to drop off a signed copy of his book, now placed against the wall. «He’s a good boy,» Vlahavas says later, patting the author’s pale, tender cheek with his big, friendly hand. «He’s a Greek-American boy.» Vlahavas stands proud, even after a reporter informs him of the novel’s plot, which momentarily shrinks his wide smile to a tiny circle. The 544-page «Middlesex» is an epic about being Greek, about being American and about being a hermaphrodite – loosely defined as someone with both male and female sexual organs. Tom’s, renamed «The Zebra Room,» appears in the novel, as does Berlin, several decades of Detroit and a narrator who begins life as a girl and later lives it as a man. Calliope Helen Stephanides was born in 1960 and grows up on Middlesex Boulevard in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She is a girl of enviable appearance until, as a teenager, she begins growing a mustache and otherwise turning more than «a little bit freakish.» Calliope gives way to Cal, who ends up working in Berlin for the State Department, and, when it comes to dating, suffering more than usual from commitment problems. «Middlesex» is also a Greek American’s affirmation of the American over the Greek, of possibility over predetermined fate. Cal’s ancestors see life as inevitable tragedy, but the narrator of «Middlesex» has the American’s hopeful eye for the next big thing. Eugenides got the idea for «Middlesex» after reading a book by French philosopher Michel Foucault that contained a memoir by a 19th-century hermaphrodite. The author found the text fascinating, but beholden to the times. «She could hardly describe the experience. She wrote around it,» he says. With the freedom of a modern writer, Eugenides describes the biological and spiritual changes of his narrator, of being «ridiculed by classmates, guinea-pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists and researched by the March of Dimes.» Eugenides’s book includes its own wry disclaimer: «I’ve given up any hope of lasting fame or literary perfection,» Cal/Calliope confides – but «Middlesex» has literary and commercial appeal. It was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux with a first printing of 75,000 and was cited recently by Book magazine as among the year’s best fiction. Early sales have been strong, even if some booksellers have an awkward time presenting its subject matter. «You don’t want to start right off by telling someone the book is about a hermaphrodite, because that can be a put-off. I just tell them it’s a great story and that it’s fun to read,» says Mark Laframboise, a sales official at Politics & Prose, a Washington, DC-based bookstore. The «freakish» life is more a matter of curiosity than of experience for Eugenides, an investment banker’s son, who, like Cal, was born in 1960 and raised in suburban Grosse Pointe. Greece is his heritage, but his childhood years run deeper in his blood. «The Virgin Suicides,» his first novel, documents the fall of a suburban Detroit neighborhood. In «Middlesex,» he seeks to demonstrate why his hometown is «emblematic of the American experience.» «You have, No. 1, this great industrial power that has fallen upon hard times,» he says. «You have racial conflict, that has divided a city, and in some ways destroyed it. You have a lot of culture coming out of Detroit; Motown and things like that. And you have the most American of all products, the automobile.» Women, too, obviously fascinate him. «The Virgin Suicides» is narrated by a group of neighborhood boys who are mesmerized by five beautiful sisters who end up killing themselves. In «Middlesex,» Eugenides writes as a man who once lived as a woman and has special insight into how the sexes differ. Storytelling was another early obsession, and by high school Eugenides had dedicated himself to a writer’s life. He majored in English at Brown University, where he carried a cane in honor of James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. After college, he went to San Francisco, wrote for the sailing magazine Yachtsman and studied at Stanford University. He eventually moved to New York City and worked as executive secretary for the Academy of American Poets, with many a meal taken at Tom’s. He also began work on «The Virgin Suicides,» which was excerpted in the influential Paris Review magazine. «The Virgin Suicides» was published nine years ago, but remained popular long after its release, thanks to the 1999 film version starring Kirsten Dunst and directed by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. The movie received strong reviews and led to renewed interest in the novel, which now has nearly 300,000 copies in print. Eugenides has joked that completing «Middlesex» was an epic task that took «as long as the Trojan War.» But the slow pace had nothing to do with writer’s block or sophomore syndrome. It was more about the scale of his project, the research and the personal commitment, the realization he was writing this book as if it were his last. «I did have the sense I was using everything I had in this book,» he says. «Sometimes, when you’re writing you think, ‘Well, I’ll save it for another novel.’ At a certain point with this book, I realized I wasn’t going to save anything for another novel.»