Reflex and Bone Structure Themes
by Clarence Major

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The title of Reflex and Bone Structure suggests a way to interpret the characters and plot. Cora Hull has X rays of her brain, heart, womb, and bone structure framed and hanging in her living room. For all the intimacy that this might suggest, readers really learn little about Cora. The stark, negative images of X rays suggest only the essential outlines of things. The novel itself, like the image of an X ray, is reduced to its bare bones in this text. Aristotle’s dramatic verities of time, place, and action are subverted, and there is virtually no characterization and very little plot development. The novel revolves around four shadowy characters interacting in ambiguous and contradictory ways. The episodes of the novel seem to ignite spontaneously from the mind of the narrator. The plot reads like the reflex reactions of the narrator, who puzzles out his existence among characters who may or may not be real. Since everything is consciously filtered through the narrator’s viewpoint, and since he says that he is lying, a reader’s response is also much like a reflex reaction; that is, readers are constantly bewildered and under attack as much as are the narrator and the other characters.

Because there is a crime, detectives, and an investigation, certain rudiments of the detective novel genre are satisfied. The investigation stalls, however, and the unsolved crime stands as a metaphor for the rest of the novel, in which nothing gets resolved. The reader is forced to assume the detective role, amassing clues that go nowhere. The reader’s role as detective also ends in failure, since the key to the crime and the book lies with the narrator, who refuses to relinquish his hold.

As a metaphysical detective novel, the book meets the criteria of other postmodernist detective novels. One of the assumptions of classical detective fiction is that the detective can solve the crime. In metaphysical detective novels, the formula of detective fiction is subverted. The details are twisted, the plot is awkward, the characters are strange—nothing can be solved. The detective in these novels is often ineffectual, and readers are forced to assume the role of detective in trying to bring order to the text. Often, however, order cannot be imposed, suggesting that the novel might be about the process of understanding itself as well as about the nature of language. In the end, nothing makes sense but the poetry of the words. This contradiction of readers’ expectations is a decided ploy on the part of the narrator. Reflex and Bone Structure is a conscious attempt to take away plot, characterization, and motivation, leaving little connective narrative tissue. This type of confrontational and self-reflexive text is often called metafiction. It is a trademark of metafiction to emphasize the artifice of fiction, thereby questioning the very notion of what a novel is.

Indeed, the author, Clarence Major, is quite aware of the conundrums preferred by this type of fiction and gives readers some warning of what is coming. On the book’s inscription page, there is an enjoinder that reads, “This book is an extension of, not a duplication of reality. The characters and events are happening for the first time.” The author’s preamble suggests the spontaneous quality of Reflex and Bone Structure . The very short, elliptical, and confusing vignettes bewilder the narrator as much as readers. The narrator is a character in his own narrative, but he does not possess the omniscient quality of most narrators. The present-tense format also adds to the sense that the...

(The entire section is 912 words.)