Chapter 11 Summary

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The eleventh chapter, “Ex Ovo Omnia,” describes the circumstances of Cal’s birth. The title is Latin for “everything comes out of an egg.” It is from Calliope’s perspective that we learn this saying; she explains to her high school class that it is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This expression can be used to illustrate the theory of Preformation, where a family can be traced back to a common egg, like a Russian nesting doll. Cal sometimes imagines herself and her older brother, “Chapter Eleven,” sitting together like dolls before their birth. In 1954, Chapter Eleven leaves Cal; he “raised his arms and traveled down the waterslide into the world.”

Thinking over the birth of his first son, Milton decides to take over his father’s business. Milton was drafted to fight in the Korean War, but, as Desdemona explains, St. Christopher once again looked after Milton and kept him out of the line of fire. Although Milton did not see battle, the U.S. Navy nevertheless has a powerful influence on him. His fashion choices, his hobbies, and his aversion for waiting in lines (Cal recalls having to synchronize watches every time his family went to a mall because of this aversion) all stem from his time in the navy. When Milton leaves the navy and returns to Detroit, he informs his father that he wants to take over the Zebra Room.

Lefty tries to dissuade his son from the notion, pointing out that business, despite his best efforts, has slowed down. Cal explains that the neighborhood, which had been “white and middle-class” in 1933, has become poorer. Detroit has changed. The Black Bottom ghetto has been bulldozed to make space for a freeway. Malcolm X now leads the Nation of Islam from Chicago. Cal explains that “in the inevitable chain of cause and effect, as soon as the first black family had moved onto the block, the white neighbors immediately put their houses up for sale.” This decision leads to an abundance of houses on the market causing property values to fall, more poor people moving in, and more rich people leaving town. However, Milton will not be dissuaded and he proceeds to turn the Zebra Room into a diner. Milton realizes his father makes many bad business decisions (for example, he pays premiums on three different insurance policies, though he agrees to continue these policies to humor Lefty), and he suggests that Lefty retire. Lefty spends most of his time gambling, and he goes on to squander all of his money. Eventually, he and Desdemona are forced to sell their home and move in with Milton and Tessie.

Other changes in the family take place during this time. Lina moves away with a woman named Mrs. Watson and they send postcards from the southwest. After turning him down three times, Zoë agrees to marry Father Mike, deciding that no one else is likely to propose to her. Zoë and Mike have four children together. Milton and Tessie have their first child as well, Chapter Eleven.

And Cal is born, too. She explains the genetic history of her conception in detail, explaining that

inside my mother, a billion sperm swim upstream, males in the lead. They carry not only instructions about height, eye color, nose shape, enzyme production, microphage resistance, but a story, too. Against a black backdrop they swim, a long white silken thread threading itself out. The thread began on the day, two hundred and fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby’s fifth chromosome. That baby passed...

(This entire section contains 718 words.)

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the mutation on to her son, who passed it on to his two daughters, who passed it on to three of their children (my great-great-greats, etc.), until finally it ended up in the bodies of my grandparents. Hitching a ride, the gene descended a mountain and left a village behind…

Cal explains how the gene continued on its way through the novel’s action until finally it arrived in 1954. When Chapter Eleven was born, the “biology gods shook their heads, nope.” Instead, on Greek Easter, in 1959, a sperm meets an egg and Cal feels a jolt. At this point, he is “evicted from the apartment” and is soon born into the world as a girl.

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