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Michelle Balaev. The Nature of Trauma in American Novels.

Michelle Balaev. The Nature of Trauma in American Novels. Evanston, Northwestern UP, 2012. 141 pp.

Michelle Balaev's The Nature of Trauma in American Novels takes aim at the current state of trauma theory, particularly at Cathy Caruth and theorists who have followed her seminal work, Unclaimed Experience. It starts with a critique of the foundation of trauma theory, takes the reader through its application, and stakes out new theoretical and practical directions for the field. Through the use of four proof texts, Balaev reevaluates what she considers to be the traditional paradigm of trauma studies. Finally, the text asks some fundamental question of trauma theory and ought to be considered a wake-up call for what should be the most important area of inquiry in recent times.

The text begins by analyzing the history and current state of trauma studies starting with Cathy Caruth's influential 1996 text and Kali Tal's Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma. Very quickly, the text takes Caruth, Tal, and almost everyone who has followed those theoretical threads to task for being too narrow in their definition of trauma and calls for the amplification of perspectives from which trauma can be viewed. Furthermore, she questions other ways of examining traumatic texts including Bessel van der Kolk's "neural-hormonal concept of trauma" as being both too closely associated to a cause/effect notion of trauma, its uses of dissociation, and its implication as having a contagion effect. Using Allen Young to dispute van der Kolk's findings she notes, "That people react differently to traumatic events, even in terms of neurobiological responses, is a view that challenges the theoretical foundations of the traditional model" (10). There are two concepts that Balaev has to work around by rejecting these long standing traditions. The first is the move from the personal to the collective and the second is the cause/effect problem.

The application of what is traditionally an individual psychological disorder to a collective causes a great deal of trouble for theorists. Balaev escapes that challenge by focusing on the psychology of the individual characters in the novels and only gestures toward society through the metaphor of place. For example in her analysis of Lan Cao's Monkey Bridge, Baleve discusses the psychological and physical trauma suffered by the main characters, Thanh and Mai, Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States in 1975. At the end of the chapter Balaev states, "importantly, the text magnifies the significance of the place of trauma--the natural landscape--in order to situate individual trauma, regardless of how private or solitary the experience, within a larger cultural context and social sphere" (54). The use of place to connect the individual to the social is an interesting move and it certainly allows for the shift away from the concepts of pathology and contagion. The trauma is contextualized through space but not "shared" as Caruth, Felman, Laub, and others might argue; as sharing hints at a contagion. How the reader might connect to the trauma suffered by the protagonists is through a spatial connection and whether that leads to empathy, a key component of trauma studies, is not readily apparent. Is the use of some collective space flexible enough to gain empathetic awareness of trauma, or are they so narrow in focus, so flexible that they lose all meaning beyond sympathy for the protagonist?

The second issue that Balaev needs to address is that of pathology and contagion or rather how trauma is passed. There are plenty of studies that map the variance of prevalence rates when it comes to trauma and her assessment that each individual reacts differently in the face of trauma is well documented. However there is a still a cause and effect relationship between traumatic events and literature that cannot be denied. Just as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders notes that posttraumatic stress disorder is the only disorder in the Manual has a cause associated with it, so does the writing of a posttraumatic novel. The writer has to have some relationship to a traumatic event and the desire to address the event. Again, Balaev circumnavigates this problem by focusing on the trauma of an individual protagonist. In chapter four of her text that analyzes Edward Abbey's Black Sun she identifies the trauma as the mysterious disappearance of the protagonist's girlfriend while she was hiking alone in the Grand Canyon. By focusing again on an isolated individual protagonist, Balaev avoids any concern with contagion. Furthermore, she stretches the definition of trauma beyond the traditional sense of the word which focuses on wounds caused by extraordinary events and places it squarely in the realm of ordinary personal experience, which entreats readers to reexamine their own experience, perhaps as a way of connecting with the loss felt by the protagonist. It is not contagion, but an invitation to reevaluate one's own life.

There are two central patterns that she identifies in the texts analyzed ; "the use of landscape imagery to convey the effects of trauma and remembering, and the use of place as a site that shapes the protagonist's experience and perception of the world" (xi). Place or sometimes the elision of that place, of course, is an important aspect of representing traumatic time or the metaphoric space between the pre- and post-traumatic moments. Balaev makes a slight shift from this position as she states, "Place is thus a central aspect of traumatic experience in literary representation because place provides a conceptual framework in which emotional responses occur" (xv). Landscape takes on a therapeutic and almost mystical quality. Whereas in her analysis of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Balaev finds that the landscape in the novel allows for a cure or a healing of trauma. "Cultivating a relationship to the land plays an essential role in Tayo's healing because the sky, rain, mountain, and desert represent parts of the mythic reality and cultural landscape in which he must situate himself in order to tell his story" (67). In most theories of trauma the "listener" is valorized for sharing in the trauma and offering the possibility, through that sharing, the amelioration of the traumatic event. The protagonists in all of the texts analyzed by Balaev look for a way to heal through connection to nature. Landscape, however, does not always work.

In Black Sun and in Robert Barclay's Melal, the protagonists find no such relief in their physical spaces. In Black Sun, "Although there is not a healing trajectory in the novel as is found in Ceremony, and contact with the wilderness does not exert a curative power, the protagonist's own realization of finding 'no remedy' may work as an acknowledgment of the changed self" (89). The situation is even worse in Melal as human intervention through the pollution created by the atomic testing on the rural atolls in the Marshall Islands has irredeemably destroyed the landscape. "The novel suggests," according to Balaev, "that territorial reclamation will not free the protagonists from emotional anguish, but that an imaginative reinhabitation of polluted atolls may offer a method of reconfiguring a modern cultural identity" (113). What, for me, is most akin to the posttraumatic narrative for this piece is the inclusion of the myth narrative complete with gods, spirits, and tricksters. These beings can transform the narrative and allow for the exploration of the metaphoric gap between the pre- and post-traumatic moments. The space that needs to be explored emotionally before the mourning for the loss of the lands can be attempted. "The supernatural/mythological characters in the novel function 'above' the human drama, but are themselves forces of a Marshallese imaginative resistance to a governmental power that exploits and massively displaces people" (113). In the end, the mixture of myth, legend, and human reality allow for the reexamination of traumatic time and a re-figuration of the self in relationship to that time allowing the Marshallese protagonists to move forward.

Balaev's objective for the text is to widen the current state of trauma studies and to allow for a wider range of possible approaches as well as an addition of texts that would fall under the rubric of trauma narrative. I believe that this is an important place to start such a dialogue. Obviously, there are parameters for what should be included from either a theoretical perspective or even what texts can be better understood by putting them under the microscope of posttraumatic theory, and what could be gleaned about societies that produce those texts, but those boundaries do need to be somewhat flexible. Balaev's text, then, is a cogent wake-up call for a field that has been meandering rather aimlessly when it should be growing in new and significant directions.

Henry James Morello, Pennsylvania State University
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Author:Morello, Henry James
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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