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The Tribal Knot

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A Review of The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings

by Bonnie Blader, Calyx, Vol. 21 No. 1, Winter 2003 (Corvallis, OR)


What constitutes a mystery? a philosophy professor and friend of the narrator asks in the essay entitled “Life and Death, Yes and No, and Other Mysteries in Mansfield, Ohio.” He has spent twenty years with the question. It comes halfway through this book of fifteen essays, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, and is its thematic heart. McClanahan glibly answers her friend: It’s easy.... Everything on earth- and below and above- qualifies. She includes electricity, Jell-O, and permanent waves in her list, but the question is generative. She lies awake with it that night.

McClanahan’s essays, taken together, offer a less breezy answer. In them, she shows readers that what is given to an individual, and what is withheld, is the ultimate mystery. Her means of considering the mystery is to represent it as it is contained within the apparatus of family connection. She looks at love that flows as an unimpeded current, reciprocal and sure of itself- and love that is inhibited, thwarted, clumsy, and aware of an ease of loss. The autobiographical content serves her question. Ordinary, relatively undramatic events that preoccupy most families are manipulated to point to the mystery. The ordinary becomes extraordinary used in this way.

In the first essay, “Aunt,” McClanahan pores over an organ donor section in her will, considering the left eyeball, the right, and reveals what she was not given, the ability to bear a child. The essay proceeds with an unsentimental picture of Aunt Bessie, who, like McClanahan, accounted for nieces and nephews rather than for children of her own. Finally, the etymology of the word “aunt” is offered: From old French, ante, an offshoot.... Latin root, amma: mother. Or amare: to love. As in amigo, as in amour. As in amateur, one who works for the bare love of it. The essay ends here, with the mystery pointed to, and unresolved.

McClanahan has crafted each essay to heighten “mystery’s” presence. Transitions particularly work to deepen a sense of wonder and to reinforce her theme. In “With My Father in Space-time,” for example, the essay progresses in sections, some only a paragraph long. Consecutive transition sentences are: Above the physicist’s head, the minute hand jumps, and The first time I felt my heartbeat I was eight years old. A third quotes Bertrand Russell on relativity. The shifts are sharp. White space between sections becomes space for the readers’ reflection on the dramatic narrative turns she takes. The method energizes the material, helping the common to become uncommon.

McClanahan’s deliberate regard for craft and the emergence of a theme greater than the public rendering of her life opens the door to an important use of memoir as a genre. Like another woman writer, Suzanne Antonetta, who in the memoir Body Toxic (2000) makes her life the means to speak of, and metaphor for, the environmental devastation of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, McClanahan has found a way to make the personal a language for a greater concern. Here, in fact, the personal is arranged to be the greater concern: Mystery is given a vocabulary and referents. The metaphysical is made tangible in her body. The structural arrangement of the essays are mystery’s limbs moving. Form and function are one.

The Van Angels
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  • "The story is not the story of the family, but the story of memory itself."--Judith Kitchen, Water-Stone Review
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