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....

(The entire section is 912 words.)