- The Nature of Trauma in American Novels by Michelle Balaev
Over the past two decades scholars in literary studies have shown an increasing interest in trauma as a research topic, and today the relationship between literature and trauma is one of the hottest subjects of investigation; however, as Michelle Balaev suggests in The Nature of Trauma in American Novels, most studies on literary trauma, such as Laurie Vickroy’s Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction and Deborah Horvitz’s Literary Trauma: Sadism, Memory, and Sexual Violence in American Women’s Fiction, employ what she terms “the traditional model” of trauma. This model, offered primarily by such theorists as Cathy Caruth, takes for granted a causal connection between trauma and dissociation. The Nature of Trauma in American Novels bespeaks a new, intriguing trend in literary criticism on trauma in fiction by participating in recent literary and theoretical discussions about the subject that challenge some of the prevalent premises of defining the concept. In addition to the seminal work of Caruth, a group of scholars following Ruth Leys have questioned the understanding of trauma as unrepresentable. Balaev’s volume is undeniably positioned in this debate with the group of skeptics regarding Caruth’s work and makes a definite contribution to the existing scholarship in the field.
Balaev breaks new ground as she thinks through the basis, practices, and potential of literary trauma theory and seeks to delineate the features [End Page 147] of a new theoretical approach to reading trauma in contemporary American novels. Of crucial importance to Balaev’s study is the relationship between psychic trauma, memory, and landscape. Her approach of merging trauma studies with ecological theory allows her to introduce a new concept of trauma that is spatial in focus—involving place and landscape—rather than temporal and thus to displace and go beyond current discussions of the phenomenon of trauma as a timeless event that is not fully registered in the first place but experienced as trauma only belatedly, when it resurfaces in flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and repetitive reenactments. The book provides a fresh view, or what Balaev terms a “pluralistic model,” that considers multiple theories emphasizing heterogeneous responses to traumatic events and draws attention to the crucial role of place and landscape, which inspires the reader to focus on contextual factors as determining the value of the experience. Analyzing novels by Toni Morrison, Lan Cao, Leslie Marmon Silko, Edward Abbey, and Robert Barclay, Balaev seeks to reconceive both the meaning and value of trauma by showing the many ways it is represented in contemporary American fiction in order to generate a more diversified discourse that moves beyond what she calls “the disease–driven paradigm” of today’s literary criticism on trauma (xi). Arguing that literary trauma theory is informed by the concept of memory and its theorization, Balaev suggests that a thorough understanding of the function of memory in trauma and of the way it informs subjectivity and perception is crucial for how we read trauma in the novel.
A closely and lucidly argued first chapter precedes Balaev’s persuasive readings and provides a theoretical framework for discussing trauma and memory in contemporary literary criticism and theory. This chapter includes a remarkable range of psychological theories of memory, trauma, and identity and offers a useful overview of the scholarship in the field. Balaev is well aware that Caruth’s understanding of trauma depends on the neurobiological scientist Bessel van der Kolk’s notions of traumatic recall as dissociated and hence unutterable, and she is critical of Caruth’s conception of trauma as an inherently unknowable experience that can be transhistorically transmitted. In this Balaev relies on Dominick LaCapra’s theorizing, especially in his Writing History, Writing Trauma, about the risk of blurring the boundaries between historical losses and structural traumas [End Page 148] experienced by all individuals, which he argues universalizes psychic pain and downplays the importance of specific historical problems. Says Balaev of the transhistorical trauma model...