Freud may have cast a long shadow on twentieth-century culture and, more recently, literary criticism, but a new crop of scholars has appeared to contest the theories that have developed out of Freudian beginnings. In The Nature of Trauma in American Novels, Michelle Balaev uses recent discussions of trauma in psychology to loosen Freud’s stranglehold on literary trauma theory, in particular his characterization of trauma as a rupture of the individual psyche. As Balaev notes, the field of literary trauma theory developed out of early assertions that the experience of trauma is inherently different from the way that individuals experience other sorts of events. These claims led to the view that trauma is experienced as an ontological [End Page 874] and epistemological void that shatters identity and leaves the individual speechless, and that it can only be repaired through an act of narration that brings the trauma into recollection. As Balaev observes, speech is “identified as both the solution to the problem of traumatic pathology and a main feature that, when it is lacking, defines trauma” (9).
In her attempts to steer literary trauma theory away from the current Freud-inflected approach, Balaev draws on recent work in psychology, which now has a far less uniform view of the work of trauma on the individual. She argues persuasively that it is the literature itself that pushes us to look past trauma theory’s dominant model: “[T]he manifold imagery of trauma in literature requires a theoretical pluralism that draws upon various models of trauma and memory . . . in order to account for its diverse representations” (xiii). Alternative psychological models of trauma prove particularly useful in their treatment of memory: “The pluralistic model entertains a view of remembering as a fluid and selective process of interpretation, rather than only as a literal, veridical recall. Remembering therefore can be influenced by multiple internal and external factors. . . . These contextual factors, especially society, cultural values, and landscape are interacting and influencing the process of remembering” (xiv).
Hers is, in essence, a recuperative claim for trauma and narration. Balaev argues that trauma need not be described solely in terms of pathology, loss, and fracture. Instead, in her analysis of four contemporary novels, she uncovers representations of individuals whose trauma opens them up to “special knowledge or unique, positive powers” (27), and others for whom trauma is mitigated by physical rituals rather than speech. Part of Balaev’s point is simply to draw attention to the fact that fiction portrays diverse responses to trauma. She sets this variety against the insistence on pathological trauma that has dominated discussions of trauma theory in the past two decades. But she also emphasizes the role of the traumatized individual’s environment in both shaping and reflecting the experience and effects of trauma—thus the play on “nature” in the book’s title. In emphasizing the context of trauma, Balaev marries her trauma theory interests with her ecocritical expertise to suggest a shape for new trauma theory that is capacious enough to contain the variety of trauma experience that she sees in contemporary fiction, and that also has enough of a theoretical foundation to speak to very different responses to trauma. As she argues, “place provides a conceptual framework in which emotional responses occur” (xv). In setting her work against recent claims of a “posttraumatic culture” (12), or of trauma as transmitted across generations and through alliances of race, gender, and culture, Balaev provides an important check to a [End Page 875] strain of trauma theory that would remove trauma too far from the realm of individual experience. Her project returns trauma to an experience in which historical and cultural specificity play an important role in shaping the way it is inflicted, experienced, and managed.
My one concern is that Balaev does not do enough to develop her own theory as a viable alternative, despite its significant promise. The introduction, a full third of the book’s total length, is where Balaev does much of the heavy lifting as she hashes out the origins of trauma theory, its...