This latest reissue of a modern classic (an earlier edition called Hermaphrodeity, by Alan Friedman, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1973) shows the many lives and loves of a hermaphrodite.
Early on in life, a little girl named Millie Nemos begins to suspect she might be different from other girls. Precocious sex games with her brother Sandy provoke very confusing reactions, and by the time she enters college, she’s sarcastically aware of the whole truth: “I was their prize—Harvard’s only genuine hermaphrodite.” Her story is a ribald, hugely entertaining tale of sexual encounters and torrid love affairs (and occasionally even “beatific, humdrum love”) in far-flung locales, as Millie—and her masculine self, Willie—wanders hilariously all over the sexual landscape. There’s a combustible relationship with the sultry Flaminia (the author has a good deal of innocent fun with character names) and a more complicated, long-term encounter with her boss, professor Satori—“I see his heavy head with its shag rug of yellow-white hair, I see his ugly nose (enormous—more than a facial feature, it was a trademark), I see the thick, dirty nails with which he scraped walls and dirt and powdery clay and spidery coral”—and with another powerful older man, the enigmatic art collector Mr. Tieger. All the while, Millie/Willie searches restlessly for a deeper purpose in life, compulsively reading and writing with the mindset that “there was a mystery in me, ancient and undeciphered and prehuman.” The author (anonymous this time around) packs this story of “the mind-splitting polarity of my personality—a public man with a private womb”—with entertaining, often quite lovely prose. Deeper philosophical ruminations on the nature of sexuality and poetry run convincingly alongside well-done adventures in exotic locations; in a standout episode, there’s an interlude in “the blind glory of Venice” and a taut encounter there with a surprisingly complex gondolier. The book’s climactic turn into the world of big business and tricky advertising forms a perfect coda to this story about selling a narrative of the self.
An utterly captivating story of identity whose reissue should be heartily welcomed.