In a recent New Yorker article, Parul Sehgal makes the case that the trauma plot can leave us with characters who are ‘flattened into a set of symptoms.’ The first example that came to my mind, and not included by Sehgal, was The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-winning film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The main character without his combat encounters of deactivating bombs wasn’t much of a character. Yet, it is nevertheless a great film because for the most part it’s plot-driven, but in a good way, with precision editing giving the audience an intense visual experience.
Sehgal offers examples from television (including Clare Underwood and Ted Lasso) and modern fiction (Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) that have been reliant on the trauma narrative creating a character’s past and personality. For me, the most salient point comes from counter examples:
‘Trauma has become synonymous with backstory, but the tyranny of backstory is itself a relatively recent phenomenon—one that, like any successful convention, has a way of skirting our notice. Personality was not always rendered as the pencil-rubbing of personal history. Jane Austen’s characters are not pierced by sudden memories; they do not work to fill in the gaps of partial, haunting recollections.’
Sehgal is not a total polemicist, pointing out times when the traumatic backstory is only partly revealed and how it has contributed to some of our best works of fiction – Morrison’s Sula, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom and Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brody.
I can think of several novels that use the trauma plot to great effect without diminishing their characters. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (originally in French) have female protagonists whose traumatic pasts help to explain the defensive sharp wit and quirkiness of these rounded characters. Kazuo Ishiguro effectively deals with trauma in a few of his novels, and in An Artist of the Floating World, the denial of one character’s traumatic memories is used to symbolise the collective amnesia of post-war Japan.
Sehgal’s piece is also worth a read for what she has to say about the ubiquity of trauma in our present-day cultural scripts, offering studies and views counter to popular thought. Like Sehgal, I find it intriguing that our society seems to have a fascination with trauma. Is this part of a victim-centric wave of thought and policy (those much-debated ‘safe spaces’) or have we become more sympathetic and able to discuss traumatic experiences that our ancestors preferred to conceal?