Summary: Chapter 11: Ex Ovo Omnia

Dr. Philobosian once told the Stephanides family about the seventeenth-century theory of Preformation, which suggested that all of humankind existed in miniature since creation. Cal sometimes pictures himself and Chapter Eleven sitting together on rafts of eggs, with Cal’s face flashing between his feminine and masculine faces, watching the world until it’s their turn to enter.

Milton serves as a Naval officer in the Korean War, developing a no-nonsense personality and precision in how he holds himself. In 1954, Chapter Eleven is born. Desdemona dreams of retiring to New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Michael pursues Zoë for years, and when she meets no one better, she marries him.

In 1956, Milton retires from the Navy with the dream of opening a restaurant chain, starting with the Zebra Room. The Zebra Room’s neighborhood has become impoverished. Black people moved to the neighborhood after the demolition of the Black Bottom ghetto, which caused white residents to move, depressing the housing prices. Milton begins renovating the Zebra Room into a diner. He questions Lefty on taking out three insurance policies on the building. Lefty explains that he’s lived through a fire, and sometimes a fire burns down an insurance company, too.

The diner opens and becomes successful. Milton and Tessie buy a house in the affluent Indian Village neighborhood. Milton tells Lefty that he and Desdemona are always welcome. Lefty doesn’t like feeling unneeded, and he finds a casino in the guise of a medical supply store and starts gambling there daily. He starts taking money from the diner, but Milton is too busy between to notice. Finally, only thirteen dollars remain in Lefty’s bank account.Destitute, Lefty and Desdemona move in with Milton only a year before they would have paid off their mortgage.

On Greek Orthodox Easter, as Chapter Eleven plays an egg cracking game, Tessie taps Milton on the shoulder, and they go to conceive Cal. Cal imagines the sperm swimming, carrying with them a mutation created by the biology gods, ready to meet an egg with the same mutation. With his last shred of omniscience, Cal sees Lefty collapse with a pain in his temple on the night of his birth.

Summary: Chapter 12: Home Movies

Cal believes he remembers Tessie’s face as he’s brought for his first bath. Dr. Philobosian, now seventy-four, conducts an anatomical exam. The nurse touches Dr. Philobosian’s arm during the exam, causing him to not look closely at Cal’s genitals. He declares Cal (now named Calliope) to be a healthy baby girl.

Meanwhile, Desdemona finds Lefty collapsed on the kitchen floor and sobs. However, she also feels like a weight has been lifted. Soon it becomes evident that Lefty’s heart still beats. He awakens two days later with his memory intact but unable to speak. He communicates by writing on a chalkboard. Cal warns that from here out all narration will be colored by his own participation.

Julie Kikuchi believes that beauty is always freakish. Cal sees the same quality in his baby self, who possesses strange features that nevertheless come together harmoniously.

After guilt tripping from Desdemona, Milton agrees to let Callie be baptized. Michael, now Father Mike, performs the ceremony. Callie pees in Father Mike’s face by accident. Milton is delighted by his daughter committing this small blasphemy. No one wonders about the mechanics of how Callie is able to pee in such an arc. Desdemona takes the humiliating event as a bad omen, and she has always felt uneasy about Callie. Callie not only defied the power of her spoon, but Lefty collapsed the day of her birth. However, Desdemona eventually cannot resist Callie, and Callie becomes her favorite grandchild.

Cal recalls the home movies Milton used to make. Dr. Luce used these to show how feminine Callie’s socialization was. At Christmas, her parents would dress her in tulle skirts. There’s a film labeled “Easter ‘62” that shows her feeding a baby doll a toy bottle. Milton stops making the videos out of worry over the family finances. The Zebra Room’s neighborhood has grown increasingly full of racial tension. Callie sometimes goes with Milton to the diner and talks with a Black man named Marius, who stands out front educating about racism. He’s studying law and kind to Callie, calling her Cleopatra. He tells her Milton is afraid of Black people. Callie doesn’t believe him, but she does start to notice the way Milton seems anxious around Black people. One day, Milton catches Callie talking to Marius and scolds them.

Analysis: Chapters 11 & 12

The upward mobility of the Stephanides family and the descent into poverty of the Zebra Room’s neighborhood highlight the unequal opportunities afforded to white and Black Americans. Despite Lefty’s criminal past, Milton, a former scout and Naval officer, has cultivated an all-American persona and attitude, which he uses in an entrepreneurial fashion. Even though the neighborhood the Zebra Room is in has already started to decline when he opens, he’s able to turn a profit, allowing his family to move to a larger home in a more prestigious place. However, in these same chapters, we see that the very presence of Black people in a neighborhood limits the earning potential of the businesses there, meaning that the Black citizens of Detroit fundamentally do not have the same opportunity as the Stephanides family to build a business. Milton’s hostility toward Marius for merely talking to Callie also suggests that he has internalized the same attitude that denies Black people opportunities because he associates them with danger and crime.

The imagery surrounding preformation in Chapter 11 blurs the line between science and religion, developing the theme of genetic destiny. Despite the scientific language used, preformation draws a line directly to biblical times, belying the concept’s religious leanings. Cal demonstrates how ridiculous this theory is by imagining himself and Chapter Eleven watching events as omniscient pre-birth observers. However, Cal segues from these images to talk about genetics as fated, even creating a mythical god of biology at the end. The juxtaposition of the clearly false idea of preformation with Cal’s version of the concept of genetic destiny, with its religious undertones, causes us to question if, like preformation, genetic destiny has an element of superstition to it. Furthermore, while Cal portrays his birth as fated, it occurs the same day as Lefty’s first seizure, which may also have been caused by genetic factors. The characters never explore the cause of Lefty’s strokes, which further highlights that Cal applies the notion of fate unevenly, through his own lens. For all that Cal has claimed throughout his narration that genetics determine one’s life, the way science and religion blur together when he discusses genetics suggests this idea may not be as scientific as it seems.

In addition to genetic inheritance, these chapters explore the ways traumatic experiences live on with people and get passed down generationally. We see this most clearly in Lefty’s triple insurance policy for the Zebra Room. His specific fear of fire traces directly to Smyrna, but it reaches beyond the physical fact of that fire to the fear that disaster can take away not just a building but entire institutions. Lefty’s comment that an insurance company can burn down too evokes the way the Greek authorities did nothing to protect their civilians. Although Milton wants to get rid of the insurance policies, Lefty foists them on him, symbolizing that even if Milton thinks himself separate from his father’s traumas, he nevertheless must take them on. This evokes Desdemona inheriting the burden of caring for Lefty from her parents, who apparently saw her as the responsible child, whether by age, temperament, or gender. When Desdemona feels relief at what she thinks is Lefty’s death, she reacts not to the actual loss of Lefty but the loss of a responsibility bequeathed upon her by her parents based on their own fears.

The Stephanides family, with its history of secrets, has a habit of turning away from uncomfortable sexual truths. We see this again in their failure to notice Callie’s intersex condition, which is almost comically missed at several key moments, including when Dr. Philobosian is sexually distracted by a nurse and when Callie urinates on Father Mike. Julie’s comment that extreme beauty stems from unusual features hints at part of the mechanism that covers up Callie’s androgyny. Because young Callie’s androgynous features look beautiful as a whole, the whole distracts people from noticing her individual quirks. Importantly, Julie uses the word “freakish” to describe the strangeness that creates beauty, a word associated with monstrosity. Freakishness was previously eroticized in the Minotaur vaudeville show, in which a major part of what made the show exciting was the idea of the minotaur as a sexual being. Just as Lefty, Desdemona, Sourmelina, and Zizmo refused to see more of the play or actively acknowledge its eroticism, the family unwittingly turns away from the fact of Callie’s body. Even during the baptism incident, humor and blasphemy cover up the pure fact of Callie’s physiology. Because of the family’s conservative views on sex and bodies, Cal’s intersex condition gets tied to sex and shame and therefore joins the ranks of things that cannot be looked at directly.