Literary Mixtape: Cal Stephanides from ‘Middlesex’


If you’ve ever wondered what your favorite literary characters might be listening to while they save the world/contemplate existence/get into trouble, or hallucinated a soundtrack to go along with your favorite novels, well, us too. But wonder no more! Here, we sneak a look at the hypothetical iPods of some of literature’s most interesting characters. What would be on the personal playlists of Holden Caulfield or Elizabeth Bennett, Huck Finn or Harry Potter, Tintin or Humbert Humbert? Something revealing, we bet. Or at least something danceable. Read on for a cozy reading soundtrack, character study, or yet another way to emulate your favorite literary hero. This week: the confused narrator of Jeffrey Eugenides’ family epic, Cal Stephanides.

Cal Stephanides, the sometime narrator of Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides’ wonderful second novel, is for much of the book a young, confused intersex person coming of age in Detroit in the 1960s and ’70s. Cal narrates the story from his “current” life as a man, however, for much of the novel we know him as Callie, a relatively normal young girl. Callie begins to develop feelings for her best friend, whom she idolizes and privately calls the “Obscure Object,” and has her first sexual experiences, but when she is injured by a tractor, her examining doctor discovers that she is intersex, throwing her entire world into question. For this mixtape, we’re focusing on Cal’s complicated youth — the time you generally need mixtapes — so we think he would listen to a fair amount of identity-crisis music, with a homey twist. Here’s what we think Cal would learn about his family, stare at the Obscure Object, and figure himself out to.

Stream the entire playlist here.

“Space Oddity” — David Bowie

We think a gawky yet beautiful kid unsure about their sexual and/or gender identity would pretty much fall for David Bowie immediately. Unless that kid was David Bowie, of course. Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare…

“I Fall to Pieces” — Patsy Cline

Corny, perhaps. But somehow we don’t think Cal would mind while he’s pining after the Obscure Object for hours on end.

“Detroit Rock City” — KISS

We’re willing to bet that every single kid from Detroit has this song on their iPod.

“Begin the Beguine” — Artie Shaw

This is the song that Cal’s father, standing with his clarinet at his bedroom window, used to woo his mother. Like all good Greek children, we know Cal cherishes his family history, so we think, whether he’d admit it or not, that he’d keep this song on hand, and maybe take a listen whenever he needed a little inspiration.

“Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud” — Elliott Smith

Cal would probably listen to this track whenever he needed to remind himself that the most conservative, socially acceptable path isn’t always the best one.

“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” — The Beach Boys

Don’t worry, Cal — eventually you will escape to California, where you may or may not live like the Beach Boys.

“My Generation” — The Who

In a novel so much about the passage of time and the evolution of a family, we think Cal might feel a little protective of his generation, since it’s the youngest one and all. Parents just don’t understand, you guys.

“Song Against Sex” — Neutral Milk Hotel

For all the hyper-complicated emotions — guilt, confusion, thrills, terror — that come long with Cal’s first sexual experiences.

“Lemon Incest” — Serge Gainsbourg and Charlotte Gainsbourg

No matter what you think of this provocative song, after finding out about his own origins, we think Cal would have to at least be curious. Plus, he’s a romantic at heart, and all romantics love the Gainsbourgs.

“Range Life” — Pavement

For running away to a burlesque show, and for coming back.