(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The interrelationships of four characters are examined in this novel of discursive experimentation. The main protagonists of the novel are the narrator, Cora Hull, Canada Jackson, and Dale. Cora Hull is present during most of the action, which takes place primarily in New York City, with occasional trips to places such as the Poconos and New England. Since none of the trips is described in any detail, readers cannot be sure whether they really take place. The characters can travel as easily to the South Pole as to the neighborhood theater. The novel is written in the first person and in the present tense, which gives the narrator complete control over what takes place. In fact, the narrator tells readers that he is unreliable and consciously manipulating the text. He stresses the fact that he is simply an act of his own imagination. Because of the episodic, often contradictory form of the novel, a reader’s suspension of disbelief is challenged. There is little certainty about anything in this novel, which is one of the implied intents of the narrator, who often claims that forgetfulness or simple arbitrariness purposely alters the text.

There are, however, certain motifs that recur throughout the text that provide stable points of reference. The primary frame of reference is the narrator, who tells readers that he is writing a novel while he is writing it. The narrator comments continuously on the problems he has in constructing the text as a result of his own misinterpretations, his forgetfulness, his difficulty in describing how things appear or are, and his constant flights of fancy. All the other characters are at the mercy of the narrator’s whims. Thus, they at times are sent away or drop out of the action depending on the narrator’s moods. Often, the narrator will contradict himself or even blend himself into the other characters. While the activity of all four characters takes place in a skewed, apparently haphazard time frame, the story obviously centers around Cora Hull. Cora is presented in a variety of ways. At one time, she is studying feminist theory. Often she is appearing in a play, but readers learn little about the drama. Usually, she is presented in relation to one of the three other characters in an indeterminate time frame. Cora is the center of the novel, and all the other characters are redefined through her, but she too is endlessly mutable. Commonly, she is the locus of their sexual attention as well as a physical presence to which the narrator returns again and again.

Although Canada, Dale, and the narrator are fixated on Cora, none of them maintains any long-term relationships. They revolve around one another without really understanding one another. Their closeness is suggested by the interwoven repetition of their personal and sexual encounters, which are presented in matter-of-fact...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. “Modernism and Postmodernism.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Places Major in the African American postmodern tradition of experimenting with language and form. Sees Major as parodying the detective novel and testing the boundaries of its form.

Black American Literature Forum 13, no. 2 (1979). This special issue is devoted to Clarence Major and contains a number of interesting articles. Among these are “Towards a Primary Bibliography of Clarence Major,” by Joe Weixlmann and Clarence Major, and “Major’s Reflex and Bone Structure and the Anti-Detective Tradition,” by Larry McCaffrey and Linda Gregory.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Life of Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Includes a discussion of the disruptive qualities of Major’s work in relation to the postmodern text. Sees Major as an instrumental African American writer who blends social and racial critique into experimental texts.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Self-Apparent Word: Fiction as Language/Language as Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. Places Major in a postmodern tradition of writers including William S. Burroughs and John Barth. Considers Reflex and Bone Structure a text that draws vitality from the “self-apparency” of its construction.

Major, Clarence. The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work. New York: Third Press, 1974. A collection of varied essays, including Major’s seminal essay “Black Criteria.” Also a number of interviews, including a self-interview.

Soitos, Stephen F. “Reflex and Bone Structure: The Black Anti-Detective Novel.” In Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African American Postmodernist, edited by Bernard W. Bell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Argues that Major’s novel resists and comments upon generic conventions and examines the role of race in that project.