This is my fifth and last post on Trauma and the Achronlogical Novel.
To sum up, I’ve looked at three novels that have a trauma at the center: Beloved, The God of Small Things, and The Yellow Birds.
All of them have similarities in the way the stories are told. They are told in fragments, narrative passages of relatively short length, and the fragments are not presented chronologically. Rather, they skip around, from past to present to future, so that readers often know more about the outcome of events than the characters in scene.
I argued that the achronological presentation has real advantages. Among other things, it allows for dramatic irony. The soldiers training to go to Iraq, for instance, are ignorant that one of them will die, whereas readers know that their actions take place under a sign of doom. Thus, readers understand that the promise that one soldier makes to the mother of another soldier that he’ll bring her son home safely is fated to be broken.
I also argued that, for a trauma to be “novel-worthy,” it is best if the trauma somehow brings into play larger social and historical issues. In Beloved, the trauma stems from America’s history of chattel slavery; in The God of Small Things, the trauma stems both from India’s history as a British colony and from India’s caste system; in The Yellow Birds, the trauma stems from America’s invasion of Iraq.
My last point was that, despite the fragmentary and achronological presentation of events, a comprehensible plot will eventually emerge. In the end, when readers have completed the book, a cause and effect chain will be understood. In Beloved, for instance, readers will understand how Schoolteacher’s arrival caused the horror of slavery to become more manifest, which then caused Sethe and the others to try to escape, which then caused Schoolteacher to follow with slave catchers, which then caused Sethe to kill her child rather than see it returned to slavery.
E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, talks about the readers at the end of a book being like spectators sitting on top of a tall hill. Finally, they can look back at all that went before, and it will make sense. Forster uses a phrase I’d like to emphasize – if the plot is a fine one, he says, the result will be “not of clues or chains, but of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away, only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become so beautiful.”
“Aesthetically compact”… that’s what I want to emphasize. So a novel of fragments, told out of time, becomes at the end aesthetically compact, a whole, a luminous work of art.
And yet… as I said earlier, echoing both Freud and Carruth, the reason a traumatic event is traumatic is that it cannot be contained in a normal, sense-making story. The trauma resists comprehension. That’s what defines it as a trauma. It is unfinished, and so it continues to intrude in the present life of those who experienced it. The traumatic event cannot be comprehended, but it also cannot be forgotten.
So these writers, wisely, do not allow the conventions of narrative closure to be more powerful than their stories. The novels end, cause and effect chains are evident, an aesthetic whole is created, but they don’t really put the trauma to rest. Recall the end of Beloved, especially. The community has come to the house of Sethe, and in an act that might almost seem akin to exorcism, drives out the resurrected ghost of the murdered child.
But although the ghost is gone, and although they all forget Beloved, Morrison writes that skirts occasionally rustle when they wake, and that sometimes knuckles brush across a sleeping cheek, and that other times photographs shift “and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there.”
The ending makes it clear that the trauma persists within the community, despite the will to forget. Morrison’s beautifully ambiguous phrase makes this clear: “It was not a story to pass on.” Nobody wants to pass on the story – in other words nobody should remember it. Or else, nobody should take a pass on this story – in other words, nobody should avoid hearing this story and knowing what had taken place.
A novel centered around a traumatic event lends itself very well to a fragmentary, achronological narrative rendering. The jumps back and forth in time recall the way a traumatic event is unfinished and intrudes in present life. And if the novel’s ending makes what went before it make sense, then the plot is, in Forster’s words, a fine one. Yet there may be something that yet escapes the sense-making function of plot, and it may be just that something that makes a novel like Beloved both strange and great.