In Knock Knock, Suzanne McNear tells the story of her own life, but she does so under the guise of March Rivers. This leaves the reader to guess at just how much of this story has been changed to protect those involved or even to enhance the events therein. One thing is clear, however: The chosen name is no mistake. March grows up in rural La Rue, Wisconsin, not far outside Chicago, in a wealthy household before marching off to college at Vassar, then to New York where she has a passionate affair with Max Lowan–Max for Maximilian, for Maximus, perhaps for Maximum–a man born into even greater wealth than she and whose Jewish background is “central to her interest, her determination to find someone outside of the narrow limits of her own world.”
After spending pages and pages on the affair with worldly Max, McNear demonstrates her writerly prowess by ending the affair, having March march again across the country to San Francisco, become pregnant, and settle into a bland marriage with Warren Wright, all in a single paragraph. It’s a move that shows us just how little interest she has in Warren, and as with hers, his name is telling. They have three children to whom they often refer as “the rabbits,” and like rabbits, these children come in fairly rapid succession. The family’s warren, though, faces increasing danger over the years as a result of Warren’s alcoholism and his quixotic (and perhaps even manic) enthusiasm for his business ventures and a never-ending novel.
A while after moving back to La Rue to be near Chicago, the family separates and March attends graduate school in Wisconsin, where she liaises with the fiction editor of Playboy (this much about McNear’s life we can confirm, of course) and works on her own writing.
Over the course of March’s life, she witnesses the major events of the 20th Century in America–World War II, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. King, the university protests of the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War, and others, and yet the focus in this novel remains squarely on March herself and her family. In an odd way, her story provides a unique angle of the history of America itself from the 1930s onward, and, like America at the end of the 20th Century, March’s life expresses an honest, if guarded, hope by the end of her story.
While she sometimes seems a passive actor here, feeling left out and at the whims of the world around her, March’s writing career, which is taking off by the end of the book, gives her new found agency and provides a sort of contrast to her life until that point. It’s as if that’s all she’s really wanted the whole time: a voice, a stake, something to do that really matters in the world. And the story ends with its beginning, with March re-reading the draft of a work she’d set aside years before, and we recognize her words there as the opening of this work, of this book, and so the story comes full-circle.
Some reviews have criticized McNear for rambling, for telling a story that lacks a true arc and leaving us with a memoir that merely chronicles her life without adhering to any overarching organizational structure, but really, March’s desire to write, to be herself in the face of so much disappointment and, at times, even outright rejection seems to be what guides the story. Additionally, while parts of the story may seem to lack narrative structure, the ecstatic prose carries the reader so deeply into the characters’ lives that the book is hard to put down regardless of its structure. A messy life inhabits these pages, but it’s a life that’s interesting to explore, and while it is, of course, unique, it’s also a life to which any writer can relate–a life in which the desire to tell stories and to be heard means so very, very much.
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