I’ve been discussing three novels in this thread – Beloved, The God of Small Things, and The Yellow Birds – and each one has a traumatic event at the center. They are each achronological, with narrative segments set in various time periods coming in an order not in accord with calendar time, so that readers are presented with the aftermath and origins of the trauma prior to understanding what the trauma consisted of.
My goal in this post is to contemplate what makes the traumatic event in each of these books novel-worthy. Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, discusses the ‘traumatic neurosis’ that can occur after a railway disaster or some other accident that threatens life, and he goes on to describe the lasting effects of being at war in ways that coincide with present day notions of PTSD. And Cathy Carruth, in Unclaimed Experience, expands on Freud’s notions by discussing how the accident can become “the exemplary scene of trauma par excellence” because it illustrates how a traumatic event is not grasped and comprehended in the moment but instead “returns to haunt the trauma victim.”
Without disagreeing with either Freud or Carruth, I’d like to suggest that for a traumatic event to be novel-worthy, to be substantial enough to sustain a novel, it must be something more than an accident. There is one very well-known and celebrated short story that has an accident at its very beginning: “The Country Husband,” by John Cheever. The story begins with its main character, Francis Weed, surviving the crash landing of an airplane in a cornfield in Pennsylvania. Ironically, as he is taxied to a train station and eventually makes his way home, he arrives at his Westchester County home about the same time as he normally would have arrived, and he finds that his family is involved in its own dramas and not all that interested in what he has experienced. The plane crash comes back into Francis’s consciousness at times during the story, but more as a stimulus for reflection on the routineness of his life than as something that must be made sense of.
The plane crash in “The Country Husband” is a trauma, no doubt, but it is an accident that happens to Francis Weed. In each of the books I’m considering, the trauma grows out of actions undertaken by characters, actions that reveal something both about the characters and about the larger social and cultural context within which they are living.
In Beloved, the traumatic act at the center is the murder by Sethe of her two-year-old daughter, who never has any name other than Beloved. The novel is so well-known that I probably don’t have to explain the context, but just in case anyone hasn’t read it: Sethe is a recently escaped slave from a brutal plantation in Kentucky, and she has managed to cross the Ohio River and re-join her children near Cincinnati. When slave catchers come to return her and her family to slavery, she kills Beloved and attempts to kill her other children.
This trauma, as must be clear, illustrates Sethe’s unbearable conditions of existence – her role as a mother to her children is in horrible contradiction with her role in the slavery system as a producer of labor and capital. The trauma brings into play both the taboo prohibiting violence of a mother toward her child and the larger context of the system of chattel slavery. Importantly for the novelist, the trauma is the result of Sethe’s actions within that context, not an accident that happens to her.
In The God of Small Things, two traumas happen simultaneously. The novel is complex, but I’ll try to explain briefly. Ammu is the divorced mother of twins, living with her family in Kerala, India. She begins a romantic relationship with Velutha, an Untouchable within the caste system, thus breaking a social taboo. When she is discovered and trapped, she shouts at her two children that they are at fault.
All this happens during the visit of Sophie Mol, the half-English daughter of Chacko, Ammu’s brother. While Sophie Mol is visiting, Ammu’s children feel like they are somehow less loved. After the children are shouted at by their mother and made to feel as if they are truly unloved and unworthy of love, they decide to escape across the river to an abandoned house, and they take Sophie Mol with them. Sophie claims that if they take her, it will make everyone even more desperate to bring them back. Unknown to them, the abandoned house is also the place where Ammu had been meeting her lover, Velutha.
The traumas that occur simultaneously are the death by drowning of Sophie Mol, who falls off the boat in the middle of the river, and the death by police beating of Velutha, who is discovered by authorities determined to uphold and reinforce the social norms.
The traumas here are entangled within the broader social and cultural context. The caste system, the “Love Laws” that determine who can love whom, is implicated in one trauma. And the postcolonial condition, the inability to see one’s self other than through the eyes of the colonial power, the valorization of whiteness, is implicated in the other trauma. There are many players and many actions that lead to the two traumas, too many to simply summarize, but all the actions are rooted in the broader context.
Finally, in The Yellow Birds, the trauma occurs during the Iraq War. Private Bartle and Private Murphy are both sent over to Iraq in 2004, and we learn very early in the book that Murphy will die there. We also discover that Bartle promised Murphy’s mother that he would bring Murphy back alive. However, during the months in Iraq, Murphy becomes more erratic in his behavior and finally wanders off outside the wire and is killed.
Bartle feels incredible guilt at not having been able to keep Murphy safe. He finds Murphy horribly mutilated. Thinking to spare Murphy’s mother grief, he violates military law and, with his sergeant, dumps Murphy’s body into the Tigris River.
The trauma here, as in Beloved and The God of Small Things, brings into play the broader context. The war is the motivation for Bartle’s promise, the cause of Murphy’s death. And Bartle’s action, to hide the desecrated body of Murphy forever, is, I believe, an attempt to symbolically cover up his own guilt and failure. Within the book, the attempt fails, and, as Carruth put it, the trauma “returns to haunt the trauma victim.”
My object in this longish post is to point out certain similarities in the central traumas in these three excellent novels. The traumas do not merely result from accidents; instead, the traumas result from actions by characters. And the traumas are all deeply enmeshed in broader contexts, and make manifest the inherent conflicts and contradictions within those contexts.
Those are the two features that, I believe, make the traumas novel-worthy.
I know that my notions of what is novel-worthy can be contested, and that many fine novels exist that don’t include either broad social context or actions undertaken with intent and desire. So please take my notion of the novel-worthy as applying only to the kind of novel I’m discussing here, the novel organized around a central trauma.