This is my second post on Trauma and the Achronological Novel.
As I stated in the previous post, Cathy Carruth’s book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History gives some key insights into the meaning of trauma through her readings of Freud, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Lacan, and others.
Let me make clear what I mean by trauma. I am not referring simply to an awful thing that happens to a person. For instance, the death of a parent in old age may be a terrible event. However, it does not lend itself to being at the center of the kind of narrative I’m discussing. Why? Because it is possible to make sense of it. It’s possible to think of the death of a parent as part of a meaningful narrative. If an event can be made comprehensible within a story, it is not the kind of trauma referred to by Carruth and Freud. If an event can be made comprehensible, it can be consigned to the past.
The kind of event that is truly a trauma, in the terms I’m using, is one that resists comprehension. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Freud’s work that an event that is repressed will inevitably return. And Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, states that someone who has experienced trauma “is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past.”
If one could make sense of an event, it could simply be remembered as something that happened in the past. The trauma of which I speak is one that does not remain in the past, but rather forces itself into the present life of the person who experienced it. The traumatic event cannot be comprehended, but it also cannot be forgotten. Carruth writes “trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.”
The nature of trauma is that it is unfinished, it remains incomprehensible, and therefore it constantly intrudes in the present day life of survivors. This suggests that an achronological, fragmentary narrative is the perfect aesthetic form for a story centered on trauma. Plot is sometimes seen as a sense-making device that links up beginning and ending through cause and effect. Yet a narrative that progresses through comprehensible cause and effect is obviously false to the experience of trauma.
In a fragmentary, achronological narrative, on the other hand, there is no obvious sense-making narrative arc. The past is jumbled with the present, interrupting it and intruding upon it. A fragmentary narrative requires an effort on the part of the reader to piece things together, analogous to the way a victim of trauma may be trying (and failing) to piece together events to make sense of them. It’s possible that a chain of cause and effect may become evident upon completing the novel, but the experience of reading the novel will to some extent mimic the experience of a trauma survivor trying to understand.
In my next post, I’ll look at the traumas at the center of Beloved, The God of Small Things, and Yellow Birds, and I’ll discuss how and why they each sustain novel-length works.