Summary: Chapter 5: Henry Ford's English-Language Melting Pot

A quote by Calvin Coolidge opens the chapter. It says that whoever builds a factory builds a temple.

From New York, Lefty and Desdemona take a train to Detroit. Dr. Philobosian caught an illness on the boat and didn't pass inspection. Desdemona is furious because she was not allowed to bring her silkworm eggs into the country.

Sourmelina meets them at the train station. She has reinvented herself as a modern American woman, dressed like a flapper. Sourmelina’s parents had arranged a marriage for her in America after she was caught in a compromising position with another woman. With a secret of her own, she’s happy to keep Lefty and Desdemona’s.

Lefty and Desdemona move in with Sourmelina and her husband, Jimmy Zizmo, who doesn’t realize she’s a lesbian. He expects the sala, or living room, to be the men’s domain only and the kitchen the women’s. He promises to help Lefty find a job through his connection to the personnel department manager at Ford Motors. When they go to talk to the manager, Zizmo slyly offers to drop special documents off at the manager’s home. The manager agrees to give Lefty a job.

Lefty begins working on the factory assembly line. After work, he attends the factory’s English school, where he repeats sentences about cleanliness. One day, after hearing a lecture on productivity, Lefty tries to work faster but gets sabotaged by his fellow workers. They tell him not to work fast or else everyone else suffers.One day, Lefty tells Desdemona that he needs her to make him a traditional Greek outfit for the English School’s graduation pageant.

On a Wednesday, inspectors from the Ford Sociological Department come to check on Lefty’s living conditions to make sure he’s living in accordance with their idea of American values. They don’t like that Lefty doesn’t own his own house and eats food with too much garlic. They give him a new toothbrush and instruct him on how to use it. Zizmo is insulted, and the inspectors warn Lefty that they will make a note of his relatives.

At the graduation pageant, all the graduates walk across the stage wearing traditional garb of their countries toward a giant cauldron that reads “Ford English School Melting Pot.” When they reach the pot, they change into either blue or gray suits.

Although Lefty passed his final exam, the Sociological Department noticed that Zizmo has a criminal record. They don’t want their employees to have such connections, and Lefty loses his job after the pageant. Just as he receives this news, Sourmelina and Desdemona tell him they’re both pregnant.

Summary: Chapter 6: Minotaurs

Cal explains that he’s infertile. Because of this, he expects never to get married. He cuts off his romantic relationships before they become sexual. Despite his awareness of intersex activism, Cal feels shame in his body and believes he will never find love. Cal meets the beautiful bicyclist again. Her name is Julie Kikuchi. She and Cal have plans for a first date.

Before Lefty’s graduation, he buys tickets for both couples to attend a vaudeville production called The Minotaur . All of them assume the play will follow the ancient Greek myth. However, it’s a bawdy production, and Desdemona, scandalized, insists on leaving during intermission. Nevertheless, the play leaves them all aroused. That night both couples conceive.

Desdemona and Sourmelina both feel sick throughout their pregnancies and want nothing to do with their husbands. They try to escape their bodies through listening to music. Zizmo and Lefty retreat to Greek cafés. One night, Zizmo brings Lefty on one of his “import” runs. They drive to Belle Isle, a tiny island in the Detroit river near the Canadian border, and pick up a shipment of illegal whiskey. Lefty panics, but Zizmo reminds him that he has no choice but to find new work now that his wife is pregnant.

Dr. Philobosian suddenly arrives at their door during the third trimester. His medical license saved him from being sent back to Greece. Over dinner, he exclaims that the odds of both women getting pregnant on the same night are so tiny that it’s amazing it happened. He also speaks of old superstitions about birth defects and how doctors know that marrying within families causes them. Desdemona inwardly panics. Dr. Philobosian’s comments also worry Zizmo, who begins to doubt Sourmelina’s child is actually his.

Desdemona uses her spoon to predict that Sourmelina will have a girl, much to Sourmelina’s delight. They convert a closet into a nursery for the babies. Desdemona prays that her child will not have birth defects and promises never to have another child.

When Sourmelina’s baby is born with a pale complexion instead of Zizmo’s dusky one, he believes that Sourmelina cheated on him. During his and Lefty’s next liquor run, he takes the car out on the ice. As Lefty keeps a lookout, Zizmo accuses Lefty of sleeping with Sourmelina and begins driving erratically.

Cal interjects here with a memory of watching a movie about the Greek myths as a child. His favorite was always Theseus and the Minotaur, in which the hero Theseus kills the minotaur in its maze. At the time, he rooted for Theseus and never considered that the minotaur, born a monster because of his parents’ sins, was a prisoner.

As Zizmo drives dangerously over the ice, hurling threats at Lefty, Lefty jumps out of the car. He hears the ice crack and sees the hood of the car disappear into the water.

Meanwhile, Dr. Philobosian delivers Desdemona’s son, Milton, at the women’s hospital. The same day, Sourmelina’s daughter, Theodora (called Tessie), gains enough weight to leave the hospital. Lefty soon arrives to greet his son after walking across the frozen lake. A mutation lives invisible in both babies.

Analysis: Chapters 5 & 6

The novel portrays the spiritual dimension of the American dream in Chapter 5, questioning any attempt to associate America with modernity and reason, as opposed to Greek folk superstition. The chapter opens with a quotation that compares a factory to a temple, equating modern progress with a religious place of worship. The chapter goes on to depict this attitude through the Ford English School. The graduation ceremony takes the form of a ritualistic pageant. When the participants cast off their ethnic garb in favor of American suits, they portray themselves as metamorphosing entirely into Americans, physically and philosophically—as evidenced by the strict rules they must adhere to in order to maintain their jobs. These rules, in turn, stem from superstition, not science, which we see in the Ford supervisors’ belief in the inherent dirtiness of eating garlic and the inferiority of those who rent their living spaces. Ironically, Lefty starts the chapter an eager convert, willing to work and study hard, but the Ford Foundation’s prejudiced belief that having Zizmo as a relative will pull Lefty into crime causes them to fire him. By firing Lefty, the Ford factory creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because Lefty turns to crime only because he loses his means of legal income.

While the previous two chapters tied the American dream to limitless potential, Chapter 5 reveals that the possibilities promised by America only come to those willing to assimilate. Instead of serving as useful education, the Ford English School actively teaches its students to view their cultures as dirty and inferior to American. Because the students’ jobs depend on passing the course, it follows that their ability to make money and find success in America requires them to actively reject their cultures in favor of assimilation. This setup forces Lefty into an unwinnable situation because he cannot earn enough money to assimilate as quickly as the company would like—which would involve moving away from Zizmo—and consequently gets shut out of his means to earn enough money to even get on his feet. While Zizmo doesn’t completely assimilate to American values, still running his household in a traditional Greek fashion, he does show a commitment to entrepreneurship by turning to bootlegging. In other words, the only financial success available to an immigrant who doesn’t assimilate involves illegal activity.

These chapters explore the tension between genetic destiny and chance. Cal’s constant tracing of his genetic mutation gives a sense of fatedness to the events that occur. Cal, and thus the reader, knows the outcome of the history Cal is recounting, and as he retells his family history, the sense of destiny is clear. Furthermore, Dr. Philobosian’s warning about what science now understands about birth defects raises the awareness that Lefty and Desdemona committing incest has unavoidable consequences. However, Dr. Philobosian also highlights the unpredictability of biology when he notes how rare it is for two women to conceive on the same night, as Sourmelina and Desdemona did. In addition, Sourmelina’s child has a pale complexion even if it seems more likely that Zizmo’s darker one would be evident, highlighting that genetics, too, are bound to odds and chance. Therefore, although Cal portrays genetic destiny as unavoidable, the text itself questions how set in stone things really might be because luck plays a role as well. The way the text undermines fate brings Cal’s self-assessment of himself as inevitably lonely into question. Cal portrays his isolation as unavoidable, even comparing himself to the monstrous minotaur, but just as genetics have their own random quirks, perhaps Cal simply cannot see ways his fate might be changed.

Chapter 6 deals with the way secrets cannot, by their nature, stay completely hidden. Zizmo can only hide his criminal ties from Lefty until Lefty loses his job. Dr. Philobosian’s comment about birth defects unintentionally threatens Lefty and Desdemona’s secret by suggesting that their incest will someday be revealed by their own offspring. Even when secrets aren’t entirely revealed, their fragility causes chaos. Sourmelina and Zizmo keep their inner lives secret from each other, which we see has created a distinct lack of trust. Because Sourmelina cannot tell Zizmo about her sexuality (with good reason), he concocts his own version of reality from what he knows, leading to his attack on Lefty. Like many things in these early chapters, the fragility of secrets ties to Cal’s issues in his own life. In talking about his desire to date Julie, he explains that his need to keep his anatomy a secret means that he never allows his relationships to progress. In the patterns of his ancestry, strong foundations are never built on secrets, so Cal understands the futility of hiding his body within a relationship and consequently avoids intimacy.

Cal’s reflections on the story of the minotaur tie mutation to monstrosity. Cal introduces the tale of the minotaur as the precipitating event that led to his mutation getting passed on genetically. The vaudeville production both repelled and attracted the two couples watching it, as it sexualized the relationship between the monster and its prey. Their conflicting feelings add an air of perversion to the sex that follows. This sense of perversion reminds us that despite the sex occurring technically between married partners, not all is “normal.” Lefty and Desdemona are committing incest, and Sourmelina, as a lesbian, is not actually sexually attracted to her husband. She admits to Desdemona that she was thinking about the women in the play when she slept with Zizmo that night. The play also offers the disturbing implication that an abnormal body requires some kind of perversion to be loved, as the minotaur becomes sexy through a seedy, low-value production. Cal’s later comment that he relates to the minotaur, born monstrous through his parents’ sins, makes this connection explicit, and it will be developed later in the novel when voyeurs lust after Cal’s body in the peep show in San Francisco.