Adventures in Teaching: Trauma and Realism in (Some) Weird Novels

27 Nov

Today was the last day of teaching for my survey course in American Literature.  As with all my literature courses, I included quite a few works of SF/F on the reading list, from “classic” SF like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War to contemporary weirdness like Flight by Sherman Alexie.  This year, I realized there were a few unintentional trends in the works I’d selected.  First, almost every text I had my students read directly or indirectly addressed sex.  I’m not going to talk about that today, except to say that my students and I were quite amused that our small representation of American Literature seemed to suggest that all American Literature will talk about sex at some point.  That’s probably not true, but it’s amusing nonetheless.

The more interesting unintentional theme is that of trauma and its representation through weirdness / magical realism / anti-realism.  This became apparent only recently, when we finished reading Flight by Sherman Alexie, a definitively non-realist novel about a time traveling / body-switching Native American foster kid who must discover himself through a myriad of other people’s experiences.  As the last novel for the course, it resonated quite well with several of the other recent texts, something I hadn’t expected at the time.  The angst and blunt honesty of the main character, Zits, on the position of Native Americans in past and present American society worked as a counter to Falling Man by Don Delillo, a fragmented post-9/11 trauma novel whose main characters seem irrevocably displaced from the world they once knew, moving as if by rote memory into social positions they had long since discarded before the attacks.  Before that, we had read “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” by Suzan-Lori Parks, a play which I have affectionately described as every racial stereotype of African Americans thrust into the same place and forced to speak to one another about the history of their mocked subjects.

Flight by Sherman Alexie

Only Alexie’s novel could be considered SF/F proper, as its overt time travel (or body switching across wide spans of time) is essentially a fantasy whose purpose seems to be to subject the reader to the same alienating experiences as the main character.  As Zits becomes the body of a maimed Native American boy at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, an elderly Native American tracker for the U.S. military, his own father (a deadbeat drunk with his own father issues), and so on, the novel delves further into the varied, and sometimes traumatic, experiences Native Americans have faced throughout history.  In a sense, the novel is a reflection of what some have called the “soul wound,” or what many cultural critics would term historical trauma.  This is the idea, to put it in reductive terms, that traumas of the past continue to resonate into the present in psychological and/or cultural terms.  Thus, Alexie’s examination of the stereotype of Native American drunkenness is not simply a stereotype, but rather a complication of the image, wherein those ancient wrongs, and the wrongs that followed them, continue to damage the contemporary Native American figures.  These themes are littered throughout Alexie’s work.

Falling Man by Don Delillo

It’s that sort of trauma — historical or “soul wound” — which seems to resonate throughout the works I’ve already mentioned; just as Flight seems to put the fantastic in service of the traumatic, so too do these other works.  While Falling Man is hardly a fantastic novel in any traditional sense, it’s relationship to the fantasy of daily life is quite striking.  Keith, who survives the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, returns to his estranged wife and child while simultaneously beginning a domestic affair with a woman whose briefcase he mysteriously clung to while running from the collapsing buildings.  Eventually, he takes up professional poker, but nothing seems to fulfill the nostalgic, fragmented longing for something lost that seems to control him in almost zombie fashion throughout the novel.  These fantasies, while not literal in the sense of Flight, are perhaps what Todorov calls “the uncanny” — fantastic elements which can eventually be explained rationally.  Whereas Flight clearly expects us to accept its time traveling character, hinting at the end that his disappearance was literal (this would be Todorov’s concept of the “marvelous”), the longing in Falling Man for fantasies of the mind is explained away by the traumas of experience.  Keith may put these events and new experiences in terms of a certain kind of realism, but eventually even he must realize he is living a fractured existence.  Likewise, the other characters, such as the somewhat controversial figure of Hassad (one of the 9/11 hijackers), must also experience their own trauma through this same fragmentation of memory, but it seems to me that Keith is most affected by fragmentation, perhaps because he is the only living character who directly experienced the attacks.

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Suzan-Lori Parks

Much like Flight, Parks’ “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” rides heavy on racial stereotypes.  Here, however, Parks imagines a conversation in semi-traditional Greek drama form between a host of new and old stereotypical figures:  Black Woman with Fried Drumstick, Before Columbus, and Black Man with Watermelon, to name a few.  The last of these characters dies repeatedly throughout the play, returning from previous forms of violence against black men to receive new punishments.  The play’s language — a sort of African American “English”[1] — and the structure and content of the conversations are undeniably brutal critiques of the history of people of African descent before and after colonization.  I also see the use of stereotypical caricatures, some of which were used intentionally to support slavery and the plantations (see the history of watermelon as propaganda in the colonies), as a way of turning these critiques into actual voices.  Historical trauma, in other words, need not be silenced by the false history of the colonies or the plantation; rather, the stereotypes in their critical form seem to give voice to a history which seems increasingly glossed over and ignored in contemporary America.  Slavery, lynching, and so on “happened,” but the level of engagement with what is still within living memory (minus the slavery part) has, in some corners, shrunk into the false phrase, “we’re a post-racial America.”

What I’m perhaps poorly getting at here is the way in which the fantastic, in its myriad, sometimes illusory, forms, is a useful tool for exploring the impacts of trauma.  This is in no small part due to the fact that our minds are naturally inclined towards the imaginary, even if some of us are better at it than others.  We create things from nothing within the moment of trauma, imagining details we may not have seen[2].  These works are literary attempts at representing the after effects of trauma, and each uses its fantastic elements, however un-fantastic, to make rather profound statements about how our world function(s)(ed) at various points in history, including the now.  And since we now live in what some critics have called a national moment of PTSD — albeit, one which has been “treated” by a practical media blackout on the issue — it’s no small wonder that novels like Falling Man have played into the fantasies of domestic life rather than simply do the traditional “trauma” novel.  Experience is central, after all, and the experience of trauma is never fully realizable, it seems.

What I’m curious about now is whether there are other recent SF/F or fantastic-ish novels, short stories, or plays which deal directly with real or imagined trauma?  How do they deal with trauma, and how might that resonate with the works I’ve mentioned here?

And that’s where I’ll leave this for now!


[1]:  I put “English” in quotes in purpose.  I’m not sure if Parks is intentionally writing in a specific form of African American vernacular or if she simply made it up.

[2]:  Hence why eye witness accounts are pretty low on the credibility bar


One Response to “Adventures in Teaching: Trauma and Realism in (Some) Weird Novels”


  1. » The OutRamp Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy: Episode #8 - The OutRamp - November 29, 2013

    […] Shaun Duke (The Skiffy and Fanty Show) with Adventures in Teaching: Trauma and Realism in (Some) Weird Novels […]

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