The King died, and then the Queen died because of grief.
Most will recognize this as a quote from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, in which he is distinguishing between story and plot. In plot, he claims, the emphasis falls on a chain of cause and effect.
Some would want to refine and extend his point, and claim that plot also requires action with intention and desire, and that only actions undertaken with intention and desire can give rise to consequences that are substantial enough to create a plot. However, let’s leave things simple for this post, and discuss his notion in relation to the kinds of novels I’ve been discussing: Novels that are fragmentary in construction, that do not depict scenes in chronological order, and that have a trauma at their center. Specifically, I’ve been discussing The God of Small Things, Beloved, and The Yellow Birds.
Despite their construction, a cause and effect chain, and hence a comprehensible plot, is evident in each of these novels. It’s true that the plot is not discernible until the novel is read through to the end. It’s also true that, in the experience of reading each book, a reader will read scenes out of order, and hence not immediately understand the cause of each of the events. Yet at the end, in each novel, the cause and effect chain clacks into place. And I believe that novels with a trauma at the center are especially suited to this kind of achronological, fragmentary aesthetic. It’s almost as though the trauma, like a dark center of gravity, keeps the fragments from flying off into incomprehensibility and organizes them into a narrative.
Let me illustrate this with one of the books, The God of Small Things.
Arundhati Roy actually invokes the difficulty of stating “when it all began,” and she says that the only real place that the story all began would be where the Love Laws were first laid down which state who could rightly love whom – obviously, a time lost in the distant past. So I will take a page from her book and say, with her, that in a practical world, you have to start somewhere.
The opening situation is this: Chacko is the eldest son of a well-to-do upper caste Indian family, and he is running the family business. Chacko had studied at Oxford University and had, while in England, married Margaret, an English woman, and had a child with her. She then divorced him and married an Englishman. After his return to India, he has always had a longing for his former wife and the child he barely knew.
Ammu is Chacko’s sister. She married as she was supposed to, but her husband was an alcoholic and didn’t care for her. She had twins, Estha and Rahel, but she ends up divorcing her husband after he tries to prostitute her to his boss. She returns home, living with Chacko and her mother, Mammachi, but because of her gender she has no legal standing, no right to any of the family fortune. She is in her early thirties, but she feels that society is telling her that her life is over with.
A third major character, Velutha, is an Untouchable. He is something of a mechanical genius, and is useful at the family business, but his skill takes him a bit beyond his social role.
That is the situation at the beginning of the novel, set but unstable. The incident that sets off the chain of cause and effect is the untimely death of Margaret’s husband, which causes her to decide to come to India with her daughter, Sophie Mol, and see Chacko.
While in the capital to pick up Sophie Mol and Margaret, Estha, one of the twins, is sexually abused by a seller of drinks at a movie house. This causes Estha to want to be able to escape in case his abuser comes seeking him out. He finds a boat and sets up a refuge at an abandoned house across the river from the family compound.
The presence of Sophie Mol and Margaret causes Ammu to reflect on her own life. Sophie Mol, especially, is fawned over and made much of, and Ammu feels that in contrast, her future has been totally foreclosed. The dissatisfaction makes her reckless, and when she sees Velutha at this time, she sees him as a potential lover. The two come to understand each other’s desires, and they begin a passionate affair in the same abandoned house where Estha has set up a refuge.
Velutha’s father, Vellay Paapen, is also an Untouchable, but he is dedicated to the old ways of doing things. When he sees his son crossing the river to be with Ammu, who is upper caste, he tells Ammu’s family.
This causes the family to lock Ammu up until they can invent a story that will save the family honor. Ammu, enraged, rails at her Estha and Rahel through a locked door and calls her children millstones around her neck. Her verbal abuse causes the children to flee in the boat across the river to the abandoned house. Sophie Mol talks them into taking her with them, and on the way across the river, Sophie falls from the boat and drowns.
Baby Kochamma, a poor relative living with the family, decides to go to the police and claim that Velutha has raped Ammu. Velutha, at this point, is waiting at abandoned house in hopes that Ammu will come to him, ignorant of the fact that Estha and Rahel are there as well. The police go in search of Velutha, under the assumption that he is a rapist, and find him at the abandoned house. They beat him savagely, to the point of death, before finding Estha and Rahel in the house as well.
Ammu refuses to go along with the story of being raped, and since no complaint has been sworn, the police are stuck with a man they have beaten who has not been charged with a crime. Baby Kochamma, who would otherwise be accused of making false statements to the police, makes Estha “confess” to being abducted by Velutha.
Veultha dies in custody from his beating. Ammu goes to the police station to try to get him free, but it’s too late.
The whole household is in grief and rage because of the death of Sophie Mol. Baby Kochamma insinuates that the entire tragedy is the fault of Ammu and her two children, and gets Chacko to throw Ammu out.
There is more to the story, and in fact the novel depicts what has happened decades later, when Estha and Rahel are grown. But this summary should suffice to make my point. If the novel were told chronologically, it might begin with Margaret and Sophie Mol in England deciding to come visit Sophie’s biological father. Instead, it shows Sophie Mol’s funeral just a few pages in, and skips into the past and into the future every few pages. And please note, the various sections are not flashbacks, they are not events that come filtered through the consciousness of one of the characters in the book, they are fully dramatized sequences from an omniscient narrator presented out of chronological order.
Yet the cause and effect chain is clear after the book is read. The various events leading up to the trauma of Sophie Mol’s drowning and Velutha’s beating death are caused by Estha and Rahel’s fear, Sophie Mol’s loneliness, Ammu’s frustration, Chacko’s nostalgic love. And the trauma itself has consequences, a clear cause and effect chain leading to Ammu’s banishment and eventual death, the separation of the twins, Estha’s gradual descent into muteness.
Not every book that is fragmentary and achronological can be resolved into this kind of coherent narrative, of course. Ava, by Carole Maso, for instance, consists of the thoughts of a dying woman and only frustrates the attempt to uncover a complete story. And not every novel with a trauma at the center is written achronologically. Eric Puchner’s Model Home, for instance, has a beautiful young man horribly scarred by a gas explosion at its center, and it’s told completely chronologically.
However, I think there is a high level of craft and artistry in the construction of the novels I’ve been considering. The trauma at the center holds the novel together, and finally, all the causes and consequences are illuminated.
I’ll make one more post about Trauma and the Achronological Novel before going on to other topics.