- Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction
Over the past two decades psychologists, artists, and scholars have all displayed a steadily growing interest in trauma—the response to catastrophic events so intense that it leaves lasting psychic damage. As Laurie Vickroy contends in her book Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction, so great has the interest been, that there could now be said to be a genre of contemporary fiction devoted to exploring trauma. Her book sets out to delineate the features of this genre, which she labels "trauma narratives," by discussing the fiction of Toni Morrison, Marguerite Duras, Dorothy Allison, Larry Heinemann, Pat Barker, and Edwidge Danticat. Vickroy brings an impressive range of research in trauma theory, object relations, postcolonial theory, and other scholarship to her task. For those who are looking for an introduction to trauma theory and its relevance to literature, Vickroy provides an excellent overview of the scholarship and a complex synthesis in her introduction, as well as an extremely useful bibliography.
One can readily agree with Vickroy that there has recently been a huge outpouring of films, fiction, memoirs, testimonies, even children's literature that explicitly addresses trauma and that important distinctions can now be made about this deluge. Vickroy acknowledges the "therapeutic and testimonial value" of other literary texts covering trauma (xi), but she also insists that her category of fiction, "trauma narratives," has important distinguishing features [End Page 522] from the many trauma texts of popular culture and that it can also be as legitimate or "authentic" as the "direct testimony" of survivors (21). Vickroy is in some disagreement, here, with trauma theorists Kali Tal and Lawrence Langer who believe that the only legitimate trauma stories are those which are provided by the direct, or first-person, testimony of survivors. According to Tal and Langer, the experience of trauma is so unique that only its survivors can hope to convey its horrors; any literary trappings such as characterization or point of view compromise and distort the expression of this experience. Direct testimony, for example, is often characterized by hesitations, gaps, and silences that are consolingly polished over by coherent narratives. This may well be true in most popular fiction, as Vickroy points out. Popular films and fiction often simply use trauma as sensationalistic subject matter or to provide plot payoff; in any case, these stories do little to engage the reader in the difficulties of giving expression to the traumatic experience.
By contrast, "trauma narratives," by concerning themselves with "the problematic nature of reconstructions" are more "authentic" than popular culture's renditions to the experience (xi). Often experimental or innovative in literary technique, they "incorporate the rhythms, processes, and uncertainties of trauma within [their] consciousness and structures" (xiv). These experimental techniques, including dialogism, or the use of multiple yet unresolved perspectives, provoke in the reader a response of "empathetic unsettlement," a term Vickroy borrows from Dominick LaCapra. This response goes beyond an "overidentification" with the victim that would promote rationalization or even obfuscation of the experience of the traumatized (xi). Moreover, authentic narratives "avoid [simplistic solutions and easy consolations] by often critiquing oppressive forces and questioning the effectiveness and costs of the survival tactics victims employ, which often diminish their lives significantly" (xiii). Particularly because traumatized peoples are often those who are voiceless and most socially marginalized, art can bring to bear the powers of imagination and symbolic experimentation to help readers more fully realize, and even to participate in, a terrifying and alienating experience. Thus moved, informed and yet unsettled, the reader is in a better position to perform a kind of sociocultural critical analysis on the very forces that induce or foster trauma in the first place. Vickroy's central contention about these trauma narratives, then, is that they are ultimately ethical in their desire to use literary technique to engage the reader's empathy and critical thinking.
Trauma, then, is demonstrated to be not simply a "personal tragedy" but the consequence of larger destructive forces (112), and this emphasis on social oppression and the psychic damage it leaves [End...