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The Trauma Novel

Contemporary Symbolic Depictions of Collective Disaster


Ronald Granofsky

This study attempts to make sense of a group of novels that deal in a symbolic way with contemporary forms of collective disaster (the prospect of nuclear war, the Holocaust, environmental destruction). It shows similarities among British, American, Canadian and other novels never before grouped together and argues that they constitute a distinct sub-genre of fiction: the trauma novel. In so doing, the book sets forth an original theory about how literary symbolism functions as part of a cultural response to collective trauma.


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1 mentions among the latter "deliberately caused disasters (e.g. bombing, torture, death camps)" and also comments that "[t]he disorder is apparently more severe and longer lasting when the stressor is of human design" (248). Indeed, the shock at the destructive potential in human depravity given free rein by modern technology is the basic cultural origin of the trauma novel. It is my contention that the type of writing found in the trauma novel is inconceivable before 1945. The concept of the trauma novel, then, is not a purely generic one but a genre-period notion and one, moreover, that suggests a bifurcation of post-war English fiction into two distinct sub-genres that emerge out of literary modernism: the modernist trauma novel and the postmodern novel. Insofar as it is a period construct, the beginnings of the trauma novel can be seen to lie between those of literary modernism and postmodernism purely in terms of chronology. It would not be surprising, then, if the sub-genre were to suggest some of the elements of the transition from the one to the other if that is, in fact, what fiction in English has been going through in the last few decades. One might argue that modern works of fiction prefigure the trauma novel, while postmodern fiction, no longer able to sanction a symbolic explanation or depiction, takes the horror at the heart of trauma fiction for granted. In terms of genre, however, and the ideology that underpins any recognizable genre, the trauma novel and...

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