In her essay on “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” Kimberly Blaeser situates N. Scott Momaday’s work among the “open works that actively engage the reader in the performance of the text.” (Blaeser, 41) While reading her essay, it occurred to me that this transactional theory of reading can be utilized to explore the role of fragmentation in the narrative of trauma survivors. As these writers attempt to communicate an unspeakable experience to the uninitiated reader the standard beginning-middle-end story telling technique falls short. In other words, an experience riddled with memory flashbacks and nightmares requires a nonlinear recollection. But beyond the obvious trauma narratives of soldiers, veterans, and crime victims, I realized that this idea could be expanded. It is my contention that the cultural trauma of the two world wars, along with the cold war that followed, unsettled our group consciousness to such an extent that we all suffer from the trauma of modernity. It is the effects of this constant unsettling of history that has shattered our linear narrative practice. In this paper, I wish to argue that our narratives have become increasingly fragmented because only a shattered narrative can accurately represent the ruptured inner reality of the contemporary world.
Through the reading of interdisciplinary texts in the field of trauma studies, I wish to develop Blaeser’s textual theory into a possible explanation of the fragmentation of contemporary narratives. With a keen eye on the effect that traumatic events have on the verisimilitude of memory, I wish to suggest a transactional system for reading these often elusive narratives. It is my hope that this notion can be utilized to explore the role that fragmentation plays in rendering difficult memories and shattered identities into fictional forms. Because of the link I am attempted to establish between the modern experience and post-traumatic memory, I find it necessary, at the outset, to pay special attention to the narrative practices of traditional trauma survivors, particularly war trauma survivors, who struggle to tell their stories.
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I must first point out that the link between trauma and literature is not a new idea in Modernist studies. In an essay on Virginia Woolf, Karen DeMeester commandingly states that “modern literature is a literature of trauma” (DeMeester, 649). But her distinction is limited to the trauma of the author and doesn’t much discuss the effects that the text may have on the reader. And I would also argue that this distinction can not be confined to the period defined as Modernist. In fact, there is precedent to claim that trauma in literature is a theme that can not be contained in any one literary period or genre. Contemporary critics of war literature, such as Kalí Tal, have argued that trauma literature is a genre in and of itself, a genre that requires specific scholarship to understand. In an essay appearing in the scholarly collection Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature Tal proposes the creation of a trauma genre that deals specifically with the writing of survivors. By highlighting the unique perspective of the survivor, Tal sheds light on the difficulty of reporting such experiences to uninitiated readers. She points out that:
To posit a literature of trauma one must assume that the identity of the author as author is inseparable from the identity of author as trauma survivor. (Tal, 217)
Furthermore, she claims that what separates the traumatized veteran writer from others is directly related to the shattering of both National myths—“propagated in such places as textbooks, official histories, popular-culture documents, and public schools”—and personal myths—which are “the particular set of explanations and expectations generated by an individual to account for his or her circumstances and actions.” (Tal, 225) It is this loss of all psychological frame-of-reference that, according to DeMeester, “damages the victim’s faith in the assumptions he has held in the past about himself and leaves him struggling to find new, more reliable ideologies.” (DeMeester, 650) Tal also claims that “literature written about the trauma of others is qualitatively different from literature by trauma survivors,” (Tal, 217) but she also argues that the narrative of the survivor crosses boundaries between types of experience. “This distinction connects literature by Vietnam veterans to Holocaust literature, A-bomb literature, the literature of combat veterans of other wars, rape literature, and incest literature.” (Tal, 217-18)
And although Tal’s essay deals primarily with the poetry of traumatized Vietnam Warveterans, she supports the idea of trauma as a period crossing theme when she invokes the destruction of the so-called Great War to support her argument. She notes how “World War I provided a crushing blow to the fictions by which [the British] lived their lives.” (Tal, 227)
But beyond the direct and immediate effects of trauma on the assumptions of the victim, the difficulties surroundingmemory also plague the effective unpacking of trauma literature. According to Karen E. Krinsley and Frank W. Weathers, “a significant obstacle to the reliable and valid assessment of trauma is the almost exclusive reliance on respondents’ retrospective report of their traumatic experiences.” (Krinsley and Weathers, 1)
This reliance becomes particularly troublesome when confronted with the difficulty victims have making sense of the traumatic experience. The struggle of the trauma survivor, and in many ways the post-traumatic author, is to re-establish some semblance of cohesion to memory. DeMeester points out that:
The survivor’s traumatized mind apprehends the traumatic event as ever-present…memories of the event often exist in the present consciousness as encapsulated images and fragments of thought that are juxtaposed against other non-traumatic memories but do not meaningfully relate to them sequentially or chronologically. (DeMeester, 651)
It is apparent, even in this cursory overview, that a genre of trauma literature would be radically non-canonical and open-ended. And it is precisely this openness that allows for my expansion of the denotative boundaries and enables me to define the experience of all modern people as traumatic. More to the point, these briefly reviewed challenges of trauma writing can help explain the use of fragmentation by the contemporary author to create a textual disturbance. In other words, by shattering the first-next-then assumptions of the reader, the text mimics, in the mind of the reader, the fracturing effects of the traumatic experience that is contemporary life.
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A direct application to something as seemingly unrelated as Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five can illustrate the usefulness of this theory. As a survivor of the Dresden firebombing, Vonnegut struggled for years to tell his story. But his attempt to vocalize the Dresden horror was continuously blocked by the pain of reliving his memories. What he needed was a vehicle to both access and accurately report his experiences. It was only with the fracturing of the linear time-line that he finally achieved this end. The time-sliding character, Billy Pilgrim, breaks the bonds of the present and sends the reader pendulum swinging through the novel—transforming the text into an embodiment of a traumatic flashback. But more radically, Vonnegut creates a species of aliens with a unique perspective of time itself. The Tralfamadorian ability to perceive all time in one continual and instantaneous occurrence adds a contrasting pathos to the text. As we, the hapless readers, long for the certainty of this alien point of view, we are forced to admit a stronger kinship to the shattered Billy.
Of course, despite the science fiction flavor of his text, invoking Vonnegut keeps us well within the realm of the war veteran. But we can turn to a non-veteran contemporary author such as Paul Auster to check the validity of my thesis. In his 1997 memoir Hand to Mouth, Auster reflects on the shattering effects of his early years. He writes:
When I look back on those days now, I see myself in fragments. Numerous battles were being fought at the same time, and parts of myself were scattered over a broad field, each one wrestling with a different angel, a different impulse, a different idea of who I was. (Auster, 45)
This sense of a scattered self is at the heart of Auster’s fiction. In a very specific reading of his short work City of Glass, Alan Bilton sees the text “as the quintessence of Postmodern introversion, a kind of Post-Structuralist game or booby-trap, a labyrinth of mirrors reflecting only its own vanishing point.” (Bilton, 52-53) But within the obvious self-referential structure of the text there lies a more subtle deconstruction and fragmenting of the very idea of a narrator. The main character, Quinn, becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity when he agrees to tail the mysterious Stillman. In the midst of Quinn’s (and our) surveillance, Stillman ceases to exist in the text. Asuter writes, “Stillman was gone now. The old man had become part of the city.” (Auster, 109) Without the main focus of the mystery, the inverted detective story unravels, and the reporting image of the detective, Quinn, becomes more and more translucent. The reader is told, “Quinn was nowhere now.” (Auster, 124) “It was as though he had melted into the walls of the city.” (Auster, 139) As the narrative progresses and both of these personalities vanish, the reader’s faith in the storyteller is deeply shaken and the credibility of the story is thrust into doubt.
City of Glass is indeed a challenging read. Yet I feel there is more at stake here than a difficult character analysis and convoluted plot. For as the physical eye (or the pronoun I) that the text links us to gradually evaporates from the page part of our identity as textual participant is also melted away. The trauma of this lost identity, for us, may be the most unnerving aspect of Auster’s novel and certainly suggests a rethinking of genre classification. The murder of our identity as readers, as omniscient observer of the happenings of the text, makes City of Glass a Post-Modern horror story – a sophisticated slasher tale in which the reader is the ultimate victim.
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To conclude, I would like to say that in this exploration I have tried to expand beyond veteran authors and raise some intriguing questions about textual structure and the links between a culture of trauma and contemporary literature. I am left to ponder the image of a post-traumatic culture born of the continued escalation of atrocities throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century– a culture in which writers are forced to fracture linear methods of storytelling and evaporate the stability of characters as a means of viscerally representing the unspeakable. Perhaps the use of fragmentation speaks of an unconscious drive to create a textual disturbance – to mimic, in the mind of the reader, the fracturing effects of our lives. In other words, the difficulty of a fragmented narrative may be meant to recreate the trauma of modernity by unsettling the reading experience.
It may indeed be wise to create a separate genre to deal with the particular difficulties of this civilian post-traumatic writing. But this new limbo, this gray area between accurate recounting and visceral textualization creates new challenges. Literary critics and historians may develop a habit of stigmatizing these traumatic recollections because of the psychological problems of memory that they raise. This tendency to discount such first hand reporting as neurotically unreliable is, according to Dominick LaCapra, an erroneous way of dealing with a rich, yet complicated source of literary and historical material. He concludes that:
The significant question with respect to such events is the qualitative nature of memory, its effectiveness in working through the past in ethically and politically desirable ways, its relation to a critical historiography, and its function in the present. (LaCapra, 94)
As I have proceeded to unpack these various literary ideas regarding trauma, I have tried to honor the attempt to remember and recount. The literature of modern wars and modern life are rich with historical and literary material. It behooves us as scholars, and as human beings, to take this difficult telling seriously.
- Auster, Paul. Hand to Mouth. New York: Picador, 1997.
- Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. New York: Penguin, 1990.
- Bilton, Alan. An Introduction to Contemporary American Fiction. New York: New York UP, 2003.
- Blaeser, Kimberly. “The Way to Rainy Mountain: Momaday’s Work in Motion.” Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on Native American Indian Literatures. Gerald Vizenor. Ed. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1993.
- DeMeesteer, Karen. “Trauma and Recovery in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.” Modern Fiction Studies. Vol. 44, No. 3 (1998). pp. 649-673.
- Krinsley, Karen E. and Frank W. Weathers. “The Assessment of Trauma in Adults.” PTSD Research Quarterly. Vol. 6, No. 3 (Summer 1995). pp. 1-8.
- LaCapra, Dominick. History and Memory After Auschwitz. Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1998.
- Tal, Kali. “Speaking the Language of Pain: Vietnam War Literature in the Context of a Literature of Trauma.” Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature.ed. Philip K. Jackson. Iowa City: U. of Iowa Press, 1991. 200.
- Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1963.
[Presented at the 18th Annual Tufts University English Graduate Conference: On Difficulty. Medford, Massachusetts: October 20, 2006]