"The problem is, I'm not sure I believe in the thunderclap of trauma": Aesthetics of trauma in contemporary American literature

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Gibbs, Alan
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Cambridge Scholars Publishing
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Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), focusing on a nine-year-old boy’s traumatised response to losing his father in the attacks of 11 September 2001, polarised responses from reviewers and critics. The general hostility of newspaper reviewers is epitomised by Harry Siegel, writing in the New York Press, who accused Foer of arch opportunism, arguing that in choosing the novel’s key subject, ‘he snatches 9/11 to invest his conceit with gravitas, thus crossing the line that separates the risible from the villainous’.1 Several literary critics, by contrast, approved of Foer’s formally experimental novel. Philippe Codde, for example, argues that it is precisely the failure of written language and narrative in the face of unrepresentable trauma that ‘has prompted the controversial form of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,’ and that this is also ‘why both of Foer’s novels are such interesting and convincing representations of trauma’.2 Vociferous debates regarding the literary representation of trauma are illustrated by strikingly divergent assessments of novels such as Foer’s. This essay considers those debates, focusing especially on how the discussion of trauma in America, where the phenomenon has so fully entered public discourse, has begun to influence both writers and, interdependently, critics and theorists. In the following I contend that a significant proportion of contemporary literature has reified elements of dominant trauma theory into an often prescriptive aesthetic. Elements of representation that were once highly experimental have become instead aesthetic tropes of the ‘trauma genre’. This essay also discusses a number of writers and texts which resist this trauma aesthetic, either through a rigorously deployed realism or through the employment of more disruptive effects and subjects which have not, at least yet, become ossified into genre clichés.
Trauma , Contemporary American Literature , American Literature
Gibbs, A. (2014) 'The problem is, I'm not sure I believe in the thunderclap of trauma: Aesthetics of trauma in contemporary American literature', in Benyei, T. and Stara, A. (eds) The Edges of Trauma: Explorations in Visual Art and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 148-168.
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