Friday, November 7, 2008

Three vowels for President!

Yes, we've come a long way. Barack Obama is not only the first black president elect of the USA, he also defeated the odds on another quirky score. He has a surname with three vowels and three syllables.


Let me explain. Once again I turn to an exhilarating and epic American novel about family and identity to help me make sense of the present. (And if we can't make sense, then at least we can make fun.) Thanks to a reader's letter in this week's edition of the French cultural magazine Telerama, I took Jeffrey Eugenides' marvellous novel Middlesex off my bookshelves this morning. Those of you who've read this Pulitzer Prize Winner of 2004, might remember the narrator's ironic take on another American presidential election, in which another 'multicultural' Democratic candidate (this time of Greek origin) was presented to the people.

This was 1988. Maybe the time had finally come when anyone - or at least not the same old someones - could be President. Behold the banners at the Democratic Convention! Look at the bumper stickers on all the Volvos. 'Dukakis.' A name with more than two vowels in it running for President! The last time that had happened was Eisenhower... Generally speaking, Americans like their presidents to have no more than two vowels. Truman. Johnson. Nixon. Clinton. If they have more than two vowels (Reagan), they can have no more than two syllables. Even better is one syllable and one vowel: Bush. Had to do that twice.

Well, actually three times. Middlesex had been published by the time Bush Junior was chosen for a second term. And of course the poor multi-vowel Du-ka-kis was soundly defeated by père Bush, no less.

But exactly two decades later we're watching the triumph of Obama. Can you believe it, he has more vowels than consonants in his surname? The final proof that the American people are really, really ready for change?

We'll have to see. Meanwhile, I'm delighted to have dipped into Middlesex again. The author's debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, was turned into a fascinating film by Sofia Coppola, but it will be much more difficult to turn the scope and largesse of Middlesex into movie magic. The story is set in several countries, spanning the Atlantic Ocean, and unfolds over several decades, with an unforgettable Greek-American narrator, Calliope Stephanides, who is born as a girl and changed into a boy somewhere along the way.

Truly a character 'on the cusp of identities' - the quote I used for the newly elected American president earlier this week - and this time we're talking of much more than racial identity. According to the Los Angeles Times, 'Eugenides has taken the greatest mystery of all - what are we, exactly, and where do we come from? - and crafted a story that manages to be both illuminating and transcendent'.

If you haven't yet discovered this gem of a novel (from a multi-vowel author), do yourself the favour, soon. And I'm not saying that simply because my own name happens to abound in vowels and syllables.