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Trauma, Shattered Reality, and a Return to Narrative Structure

About the Author: Cormac White

Cormac White is a University of Maryland, College Park senior set to graduate with a double degree in English and philosophy in December 2013. He is a current Teach for America applicant, and in the future, he plans to earn advanced degrees with the intention of becoming a college professor.

By Cormac White | General Essays

“Trauma, in order to be communicated and integrated into one’s personal knowledge of the past as well as that of the collective, must be narrativized.”—Ilka Saal (459)

How do we repair a fragmented reality in the midst of trauma? How can we piece back together the lines that previously lead to a coherent understanding of our personal histories and experiences, how can we reconnect the stories that once provided order and orientation to our perspective of reality? How do we cope with our tragedies? As Ilka Saal writes, “Coping with trauma entails not only the repair of incurred physical damage but also the reconstruction of shattered narrative structures” (453). Saal points out that we digest our respective realities in terms of narrative structures; we use language to describe subjective experience in a quasi-linear, pseudo-logical fashion. When tragedy strikes, however, these narrative structures are shattered and the non-logical, chaotic nature of existence comes to light.

In Paul Auster’s City of Glass and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the respective protagonists each attempt to cope with a death in their family by embarking on detective missions. Daniel Quinn’s (City of Glass) half-serendipitous, half-voyeuristic acceptance of the Stillman case, and Oskar Schell’s (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) retrospective odyssey of illuminating the mystery around his deceased father’s key, propelled each of them into the literal act of piecing together clues in order to arrive at some coherency in the wake and mystery of tragedy. However, Quinn and Oskar act out their respective roles as detectives in fundamentally different manners, each arriving at diametrically opposite narrative-reconstructions of their fragmented realities. In comparing the ultimate outcomes of Quinn and Oskar’s detective ordeals, we find that their endeavor to reconstruct a shattered reality alternatively led to a state of narrative-blankness—a state of pure possibility in which understanding is not truly achieved, but rather rests in indiscernibility, incoherence, and the hope for a more intelligible future. Or it led to a state of narrative-scarring, in which the fragments from trauma manage, at once, to retain the fact of their fracture (like a scar) while still mending the shattered reality into a narrative of quasi-coherence—a narrative structure where understanding is achieved through the recognition and acceptance of the incoherent aspects of reality.

Auster provides very little information about Quinn’s life before the beginning of the story: “As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance” (132). All we are told of Quinn is that he was a 35-year-old writer of mystery novels whose wife and son had both died. We do not know how they died; however, we do know that the loss of his family was the trauma that fragmented Quinn’s reality. Whereas he had once written poetry, plays, critical essays, and translations, in the wake of his family’s deaths, Quinn:

quite abruptly, had given up all that. A part of him had died, he told his friends, and he did not want it coming back to haunt him. It was then that he had taken on the [pen] name of William Wilson. Quinn was no longer that part of him that could write books, and although in many ways Quinn continued to exist, he no longer existed for anyone but himself. (153)

Where Quinn the man and writer had once existed as a cohesive person, the post-trauma Quinn was fragmented into Quinn the man, isolated from all but himself, and William Wilson, the writer of detective fiction. And the fragmentation goes deeper. Quinn’s identity further fragmented into his private-eye narrator, Max Work:

Over the years, Work had become very close to Quinn. Whereas William Wilson remained an abstract figure for him, Work had increasingly come to life. In the triad of selves that Quinn had become, Wilson served as a kind of ventriloquist, Quinn himself was the dummy, and Work was the animated voice that gave purpose to the enterprise. If Wilson was an illusion, he nevertheless justified the lives of the other two. If Wilson did not exist, he nevertheless was the bridge that allowed Quinn to pass from himself into Work. And little by little, Work had become a presence in Quinn’s life, his interior brother, his comrade in solitude. (176)

Thus, from the onset of the story we know very, very little of the pre-fractured Quinn, privy only to his triad of selves: Quinn, the isolated and internalized self; Work, the fictional, externalized, active self; and Wilson, the fragment of self that allows for the pseudo-unity of his triadic, post-trauma self and reconciles Quinn’s isolation with the disparate celebrity and success that the fictionalized Work enjoys.

It is important to note that while Wilson remained somewhat abstract for Quinn—a name to publish under and a tool to keep the outside world at a distance, a preserver of his isolation—Max Work had “increasingly come to life.” The fact that it is the detective Max Work—the faculty of Quinn’s self that interacts with others, that connects clues to solve mysteries, that puts seemingly disparate elements into a narrative structure—that Quinn feels closest to is poignant when digested alongside the fact that Quinn invented Max Work in the wake of tragedy. He was always a writer, but not always a detective: “The detective is the one who looks, who listens, who moves through this morass of objects and events in search of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together and make sense of them. In effect, the writer and the detective are interchangeable” (211). It seems fitting, then, that Quinn invented a detective in the wake of his fragmented reality, a detective that would allow him to pour part of himself into a fictionalized entity that always succeeded in piecing together a narrative to solve some mystery. As scholar Jeffrey Nealon comments, “Quinn’s passing from himself into Work allows his writing to pass from the literally limitless realm of composition (where confusion reigns because anything and everything is possible and meaningful) into the limited realm of work,” and, by extension, the limits of life in general (3). Because Work is a fictional entity, he exists in a world of infinite possibility in a compositional sense. However, when Quinn writes Work’s stories through the medium of Wilson, Work’s life and activity again enter a world limited by the historical, circumstantial, and opportunistic elements of the story. Thus, the fragmented triad of Quinn’s life narrative exists in a sort of fictionalized, liminal coherence. However, that structure has done nothing in terms of healing his shattered reality; it actually seems to have deepened his fractured isolation.

It is important to remember that Work is a fiction, and therefore cannot piece together the fragments of Quinn’s reality, only the fragments of Quinn’s imagination. With this in mind, it is not so surprising that, when Quinn receives a phone call from a woman looking for the detective Paul Auster (the name of the author of City of Glass), he assumes the role of Detective Auster, curious to have an actual, subjective experience as a detective. The case, which involves finding the secret intention behind Peter Stillman Jr.’s abusive father’s return to New York, provides Quinn with the opportunity to become like Max Work without the bridge of Wilson, without the limitation of fiction. Assuming the role of detective would allow the fragment of the fictional Work to come alive for Quinn, to possess him in all his heroic detective prowess, and de-fragment his reality as Work had done time and again for others. But, as Auster wrote, it is “in effect” that the writer and the detective are interchangeable; the world is not a fiction in which we have the freedom to write the historical, circumstantial, and opportunistic conditions of reality towards our chosen ends.

When Quinn’s attempts to make the writer and detective interchangeable, he is attempting to change his triadic, isolated and broken self as he exists in the real world into the invented vision of his self, capable of solving mysteries and mending fragmented realities into their pre-shattered narrative structures. In his gathering of clues for the case, Quinn stalks Peter Stillman, Sr., chronicling his activity in a little red notebook. Eventually Quinn’s mission, which began as a serendipitous experiment of curiosity, degenerates into an intense obsession with logging every detail of the Stillman case in his red notebook. In a detective novel, the detective solves the mystery by piecing together the collected clues to discover some narrative, to lift the veil from the mystery. However, as Quinn’s obsession deepens and his information and observations increasingly fill the empty spaces of his notebook, the mystery behind Peter Stillman, Sr.’s return to New York becomes less and less clear, and Quinn himself degenerates into a state of narrative-blankness.

Frustrated by his inability to coherently piece together the lines and pages of clues in his notebook, Quinn’s complete engrossment in the case begins to lose coherency as well. He even minimizes eating, sleeping, and relieving himself, spending his days living beneath a dumpster across from Stillman’s apartment. He conducts surveillance for months without result until, finally, Quinn moves his camp to the Stillman’s mysteriously now-vacant apartment, where he incessantly writes in his red notebook. The setting of the apartment quickly transmutes into an ethereal no-place, where all that exists for Quinn is writing in the notebook and the passage of time. Quinn’s identity and his detective’s mission dissipate completely, and his existence no longer bears a relationship with anything, save the writing:

Little by little, Quinn was coming to an end…He regretted having wasted so many pages at the beginning of the red notebook, and in fact felt sorry that he had bothered to write about the Stillman case at all…It had been a bridge to another place in his life, and now that he had crossed it, its meaning had been lost. Quinn no longer had any interest in himself…He felt that his words had been severed from him. (2141)

By complicating Quinn’s relationship to Max Work, who, in fiction, had been Quinn’s “internal brother, his comrade in solitude,” and attempting to manifest the invented Work into Quinn’s reality, Auster renders Quinn in a state of narrative blankness in the end (176). His fractured reality is no longer fractured because it no longer exists, since Quinn no longer exists; he is like an idea before it is written down: searching, unclear, hazy, full of possibility. It is almost as if Auster has retrospectively projected his role as author onto his creation. Quinn has effectively unwritten his own character, he has dismantled his identity into possibility. “Quinn’s ‘original intentions’ had been to have a Work-like experience for himself—to give some concrete meaning to his stories, to have an extratextual adventure which would supplement and enhance his fascination with writing about detectives. However, Quinn’s detective work and his writing soon become one in the same” (Nealon 4). Wilson had been more than the bridge that linked Quinn to Work: he was also the bridge that kept Quinn and Work distant enough to remain pseudo-unified and coherent. With the removal of Wilson, the detective work and the writing became the same, and the fragments of Quinn’s identity were annihilated into narrative blankness with no finite reality: “Quinn was nowhere now. He had nothing, he knew nothing, he knew that he knew nothing. Not only had he been sent back to the beginning, he was now before the beginning, and so far before the beginning that it was worse than any end he could imagine” (1724).

Jonathan Safran Foer addresses the process of working through trauma using a detective motif as well, but to very different ends. Oskar Schell, a precocious nine-year-old boy who lost his father in the World Trade Center on September 11, discovers a mysterious key hidden in the bottom of a vase his father bought a year before, in the days just before his death. His reality shattered with the death of his father: “Oskar displays several symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as bouts of depression, panic attacks, sleeplessness, and self-inflicted pain” (Saal 461). Furthermore, Oskar’s relationship with his surviving family is strained; his mother has begun dating, and his grandmother, though loving, attentive, and dedicated to Oskar to a point of doting, has been secretive with him, refusing to allow him to meet her “renter” (who unbeknownst to Oskar is actually his estranged, mute Grandfather, returned more than forty years after he left his pregnant wife and unborn son). Even the manner that his family had chosen to remember Oskar’s father, such as burying an empty casket beneath a gravestone inscribed with his name, seemed wrong. How could the world, which Dad had taught him so much about in bedtime stories and devised games, bear to carry on when Oskar can’t possibly? As if to preserve the pain of his trauma, Oskar even has a secret scrapbook he calls “Stuff That’s Happened To Me,” in which he saves writings and pictures, such as a series of photographs of a man falling from the upper levels of the World Trade Center on September 11. That man, Oskar sometimes imagines, is his father. We see Oskar’s own poignant perspective of his traumatized existence in a conversation with his therapist:

“I feel too much. That's what's going on.” “Do you think one can feel too much? Or just feel in the wrong ways?” “My insides don't match up with my outsides.” “Do anyone's insides and outsides match up?” “I don't know. I'm only me.” “Maybe that's what a person's personality is: the difference between the inside and outside.” “But it's worse for me.” “I wonder if everyone thinks it's worse for him.” “Probably. But it really is worse for me.” (2405-16)

Here we see the disconnect between the way Oskar feels, and the way he is expected to feel a full year after the loss. Finding the key in an envelope with the word “Black” written on the front, then, prompts Oskar’s conviction that the key was in fact a posthumous clue from his father, who in life often crafted detective games for Oskar. If followed, this clue would potentially help him come to terms with the inexplicability of his father’s death, and by extension the inexplicability of tragedy and loss. “On a symbolic level, Oskar’s quest for the lock to which he has the fitting key is a tentative step towards ‘unlocking’ his trauma…Finding the matching lock to his key is of secondary importance to Oskar. What the boy wants above all is to piece together an image of his father” that he can file away in his log of memories and details (Uytterschout 230-2). As it turns out, the key does unlock the binds trapping Oskar in his traumatized and shattered reality, though not the lock that he’d hoped for.

Embarking on a New York odyssey, Oskar systematically knocks on the door of every person named Black in the phone book, hoping one will be able to guide him to the lock that matches the key, or at least give him any information about his father that might help his search. Oskar’s mission, which Saal describes as a “picaresque journey [that] affects us as funny, sad, and ultimately uplifting,” ultimately does not lead him to the lock that fits the key, but rather to the key’s owner, who had accidentally sold Oskar’s father the vase with the key still hidden inside (470). After searching in vain for eight months, meeting a diverse assortment of people in every borough of New York City, Oskar comes to find out that the first Black residence he visited was, in fact, the origin of the key. Abby Black, that day having been angry with her husband, who was himself searching for the key, had lied to Oskar. Feeling guilty, she immediately left a message on Oskar’s home phone (having received the number from Oskar’s “business card”) explaining that she had lied and asking him to call back, only to cut be cut off mid-message. Having a fear of listening to the answering machine since his father’s last messages from the top of the World Trade Center, Oskar didn’t hear the half-message for eight months. Further, his mother, having picked up and cut off Abby Black’s message, had been monitoring Oskar’s adventure, contacting each Black ahead of his arrival to warn that her son might show up to ask questions about a mysterious key and his deceased father. Furious at having wasted so much time, at his mother for monitoring him and not saying anything, and at all the Blacks for pretending they didn’t know about him, Oskar races to meet Mr. Black, the long sought lock to the key.

Here begins the restructuring of Oskar’s shattered reality into a state of narrative-scarring, a state in which the fragments from a trauma manage, like a scar, to retain the fact of their fracture while still mending the shattered reality that will allow Oskar to carry on with his life. Sien Uytterschout and Kristeriaan Versluys, who initially pointed out that Oskar’s search for the key’s lock was secondary to his search for images of his father, write, “When Oskar entreats Mr. Black to tell him exactly what his father looked like (Foer 2005, 298), the tormented son can temporarily bask in the melancholic fantasy of minutely recreating his father’s image,” which brings to full light the fact that, “Apart from just visually reconstructing his father’s appearance, going on the treasure hunt [was] for Oskar yet another means of keeping his father alive” (232).

Having kept his father’s memory alive long enough to find some stranger who also remembered him as he was before he died, Oskar returns home to meet the renter—who, by this point, he has privately met and explained his entire story to. Even before consciously discovering their shared DNA, he feels an unusual affinity for the man, constantly noting how similar his mannerisms are to Oskar’s father’s, and explains to him his simultaneous success and disappointment:

The renter wrote, “You’re late.” I shrugged my shoulders, just like Dad used to… “Where were you? I was worried.” I told him, “I found the lock.” “You found it?” I nodded. “And?” I didn’t know what to say. I found it and now I can stop looking? I found it and it had nothing to do with Dad? I found it and now I’ll wear heavy boots for the rest of my life? “I wish I hadn’t found it.” “It wasn’t what you were looking for?” “That’s not it.” “Then what?” “I found it and now I can’t look for it…Looking for it let me stay close to him for a little longer.” (3746)

As Uytterschout and Versluys point out, “What deserves particular attention in this quote is the phrase where Oskar says that he shrugged his shoulders like his father used to” (232). Oskar, whose search for the key did not unlock any epiphany that could make sense of his father’s death, recognizes that his detective mission is over. While it no longer can allow him to “stay close…for a little longer,” it nonetheless has re-rooted his father’s presence into his life, both in Oskar’s own mannerisms (shrugging like Dad) and in his grandfather (whose relation to him, again, Oskar is only subconsciously aware of). The renter (grandfather) and Oskar then decide to dig up his father’s casket and fill it with something, but what? The renter suggests filling the casket with the forty years of unsent letters he wrote to his son, Oskar’s father, whom he never met. Oskar agrees: “I don’t think I figured out that he was my grandpa, not even in the deep parts of my brain….But I must have understood something, I must have, because why else would I have [answered yes]” (4068).

Having solved the mystery of the key, witnessed a stranger’s memory of his father, told the story of his trauma to the renter, and filled his father’s bodiless casket with the lifetime of letters, the only fragment left to be mended is his strained relationship with his mother. As Ilka Saal writes, “We…find Oskar reconciled with his mother, who now safely tucks him into bed while ersatz daddy Ron [his mother’s new boyfriend] waits outside the door. With an ‘I love you,’ Oskar’s mother kisses her son goodnight; and in this closing incantation of love, we behold Foer’s most ‘Simple Solution to an Impossible Problem” of narrativizing trauma (to cite the title of the novel’s penultimate chapter)” (471). The mother who has been rejected by her son so lovingly allowed Oskar to work through his trauma in a detective’s mission, while still ensuring his safety. She too had been stuck in limbo because of her son’s inability to move on, but now assumes a quasi-version of the role that Oskar’s father had held. She will never be his father: she doesn’t look like him nor move like him; she doesn’t tell Oskar bedtime stories, devise detective games, nor seem to be able to communicate with Oskar in the same way his dad had been able to. However, she loves, supports, and understands him. And the empty spaces that she cannot fill, are left to be filled by Oskar; he has just told us and the renter his story, devised his own detective game, and has even assumed the mannerisms of his father. Oskar’s once shattered reality has been returned to a narrative structure, albeit a scarred one. His father is dead, and will not return, but his memory, preserved like a scar, lives on. Oskar cannot rewrite his story, but he can at least continue to live his story.

In a final and symbolic gesture, Oskar reverses the order of the falling man photographs in “Stuff That Happened To Me,” envisioning the man floating up the face of the World Trade Center and in through a window, smoke pouring back into the building and planes flying back out. He envisions his father’s last messages playing backward until the machine was empty, and Oskar himself walking backwards through time to until his father kissed him goodnight, said I love you, and told him a bedtime story ending with the words “Once upon a time…” “We would have been safe, ” (4124-37). These final words of the novel remind us that life exists outside the safety of narrative; we are not afforded the ability to write circumstance, we are not “Once upon a time…”narratives. And with this realization, Oskar is able to move on in a manner that Quinn was unable to. Oskar went out into the world; Quinn withdrew from it. Oskar was the detective himself; Quinn merely reimagined himself as Detective Auster. Oskar has the opportunity to complete his own story; Quinn has been reduced to crafting a new one from the blank ash of the old one’s annihilation. If we are to conceive of ourselves as the authors of our own narratives, then we have the ability to choose how we will write the pages after trauma. We can, like Oskar, choose to go out in the world and search for the experiences that will inspire us to continue our stories, or, like Quinn, we can withdraw from our old lives and into our traumas, conceiving of lives-yet-lived, searching unsuccessfully for the words that will bring reincarnated life to the blank page.

Works Cited

Auster, Paul. City of Glass. New York: Penguin, 2006. Ebook.

Chapman, Siobhan, and Christopher Routledge. "The Pragmatics of Detection: Paul Auster's City of Glass." Language and Literature 8.3 (1999): 241-53. Sage Publications. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Ebook.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. (Jeffrey Thomas). "Work of the Detective, Work of the Writer: Paul Auster's City of Glass." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 42.1 (1996): 91-110. Project MUSE. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Saal, Ilka. "Regarding The Pain of Self and Other: Trauma Transfer and Narrative Framing Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." Modern Fiction Studies Fall 57.3 (2011): 453-76. Project MUSE. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Uytterschout, Sien, and Kristiaan Versluys. "Melancholy and Mourning in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Orbis Litterarum 63.3 (2008): 216-36. Wiley Online Library. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.