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Cormac McCarthy's The Road explores how the destruction of a post-apocalyptic world and the constant fear of death affects identity, language and memory. McCarthy depicts a ruined civilisation, integrating 'Good guys' and 'Bad guys'. The protagonists remain moral characters; the man refuses to forget his innate goodness, teaching his son the same values. Conversely, the 'Bad guys' have resorted to cannibalism; they have erased the previous world from their minds, and do anything they can to ensure their survival. The man is similarly battling with the erasure of memories from the past world, but cannot control his dreams and flashbacks which appear to him at random moments.
Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close explores the after-effects of 9/11, and other traumatic events, such as Hiroshima and Dresden, and the loss of loved ones. Like The Road, it explores how trauma affects identity, language and memory. Oskar is on a quest to find a lock to fit the key which is associated with his dead father. He is thus living in the past, and becomes fixated with finding everyone with the surname 'Black'. Oskar refuses to erase the memory of his father dying in the towers, whilst struggling with the guilt of not sharing his father's last words with anyone. The use of visual narrative reinforces how traumatic events are difficult to articulate with words; the images are also symbolic of how 9/11 was represented by the media.
Foer states his reasons for including visual narrative,, 'I [â€¦] think using images makes sense for this particular book [â€¦] because September 11 was the most visually documented event in human history. When we think of those events, we remember certain images - planes going into the buildings, people falling, the towers collapsing. That's how we experience it; that's how we remember it' ("Up Close and Personal"). Trauma thus shattered existing structures of language, since the event was too difficult to articulate into words. The images he uses highlight the experience of a national trauma; when he states that a traumatic event is remembered through images, he is conveying how 9/11 is a collective memory, since most of the world was in some way affected.
An effect of trauma is muteness; often, if something is too traumatic, it cannot be articulated into words, and sometimes speech can disappear entirely. Mutism as an effect of trauma was seen in many soldiers who fought in the wars, conveying the serious impact which trauma can have on a person. This idea can be related to Oskar's Grandfather's muteness; he loses his voice after he loses his first love in the firebombing of Dresden. He communicates through writing messages in his notebook and his erasure of speaking signifies an inability to talk truthfully and accurately about past traumatic events. Similarly, Oskar has a form of muteness in the sense that he refers to 9/11 as 'the worst day' and cannot talk about it. When Oskar's grandfather tries to regain contact with Oskar's grandmother, he can only do so by tapping the numbers on a phone dial, '4, 8, 2, 2, 8!' (p.270) communicating therefore through noises, not language. Moreover, as Oskar's grandmother types, her 'crummy eyes' (p.30) prevent her from seeing that the ribbon from her typewriter has gone; she is thus typing blank pages about her traumatic experiences from the bombing of Dresden. The blank pages represent muteness in itself and are symbolic of how language is limited when trying to portray and trauma. Similarly, Oskar's Grandad runs out of space when writing down his memories; the pages eventually turn illegible and black conveying how there are too many words to describe a traumatic event, 'Attempts to recreate linguistically one's traumatic histories are doomed to end either in the emptiness of the blank page or in total blackness'- quote from Philomela Revisited: Traumatic Iconicity in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Clos. The words on the page become muddled, and are piled on top of each other; they cannot be expressed coherently, conveying how his thoughts are literally blocked from both the reader and from himself. Thus, his memories become distorted as a result of trauma, and the structures of language are consequently shattered. Interestingly, the blackness on the pages here also symbolises the 'Black' whom Oskar is trying to find.
Traumatic memory is thus fragmented and depicted visually, appearing as images in the mind and memory. Narrative memory, conversely, orders experiences into a rational and linear sequence, yet this seems a false representation of trauma. 'When people are exposed to trauma...they experience "speechless terror". The experience cannot be organised on a linguistic level, and this failure to arrange the memory in words and symbols leaves it to be organised on a somatosensory or iconic level' (last article in faves). Traumatic experiences are thus stored in the memory in the form of images rather than words, which is what Foer is illustrating through his novel. For example, 'Children traumatised by war, for example, cannot possibly testify about their experiences, except in the form of drawings'
Similarly, the repeated images of the falling man throughout the novel serve as a reminder that language is not necessary; visual images convey trauma more effectively, whilst emphasising how Oskar cannot erase this image from his memory; it still haunts him. Oskar even reverses the sequence of the falling man images in his flipbook to 'undo' the tragedy, 'I reversed the order, so that the last one was first, and the first was last. When I flipped through them, it looked like the man was floating up through the sky.' (p.325) He wants to erase the whole event through reversing it, which shows his refusal to move forwards. Thus, despite the end of Oskar's quest; the trauma is still prevalent and consuming his identity, 'I found it [the lock] and now I'll wear heavy boots for the rest of my life' p.302; he thought that finding out about his dad's final minutes would rid him of the trauma. Oskar even imagines the falling man may be his father since he needs closure, 'I want to stop inventing. If I could know how he died. Exactly how he died, I wouldn't have to invent him dying' (p.257) but since Oskar will never know this, it emphasises the irreversibility of the past and impossibility of closure for Oskar. Trauma will continue to consume him until he accepts that he needs to try and move forward.
Similarly, in The Road, the structure of language is broken down. Kofman argues that trauma must be conveyed in some form, even if it is almost impossible, 'To speak: it is necessary - without the power: without allowing language, too powerful, sovereign, to master the aporetic situation'. She believes we need to stop processing and gaining control of language to effectively convey trauma. McCarthy barely uses punctuation in the novel, 'wasnt' (p.107) which may signify a loss of meaning, yet punctuation is not needed in this post-apocalyptic world; it is trivial and not essential for survival. The lack of grammatical structure creates a narrative which is bare and stripped to nothingness; reflective of the novel's setting. Moreover, the lack of pauses depict the protagonists never-ending stopping, and the ongoing brutality which they endure, 'They left the pike and took a narrow road through the country and came at last upon a bridge and a dry creek and they crawled down the bank and huddled underneath' (p. 134). There are no commas used here, making the sentence difficult to read aloud in one breath, which emphasises the struggle which the man and boy are enduring. The boy also 'Sat watching everything' (p.16) ; observation is essential for the boy, since one day, he may have to do everything on his own. Moreover, this conveys how the visual is again more powerful than language; the boy is learning through example and since images are what stay in our memory, the boy can look back to his father's actions for his survival in later life.
Furthermore, the breakdown in the conventional structure of language is synonymous with the erasure of memory. The man and boy never speak about the apocalypse or the trauma they experienced in the past; everything is just accepted. The trauma of the disaster is thus preventing language; it cannot be expressed into words. Through not talking about it, their memories will gradually be erased or repressed, 'The apocalypse, like trauma, causes losses in memory'. According to Freud, 'People "repress" painful memories deep into their unconscious mind'. However, repressed memories always return at some point, often at random times, 'The return of the repressed is the process whereby repressed elements, preserved in the unconscious, tend to reappear, in consciousness or in behavior'
In The Road, the man's flashbacks and dreams of the past world are memories which are being brought to consciousness. His flashbacks never refer in detail to what caused the apocalypse, conveying their repressed nature, but he does remember the conversation before his wife committed suicide, 'I'd take him with me if it weren't for you'. Since this memory is traumatic for him, he tries to remember happier times from the past world, 'A forest fire...the colour of it moved something in him long forgotten. Make a list. Recite a litany. Remember' (P.31). The man is telling himself to try and remember happiness; he does not want this new bleak world to consume him entirely.
Similarly, in Extremely Loud, past feelings of trauma return to Oskar when he enters his Grandmother's house and cannot find her, 'She'd had a heart attack. Someone had pushed her onto the tracks' P.235. His mind gets carried away due to past fears being reignited. This links to the idea of trauma coming back to haunt a person at random times, or at periods when they feel uncomfortable, Cathy Caruth states, 'The overwhelming events of the past repeatedly possess, in intrusive images and thoughts, the one who has lived through them'. 'Introduction', in idem (ed.), Trauma: Explorations in memory, p. 151. Oskar further feels this fear when he is on the Empire State Building; 'The whole time I was imagining a plane coming at the building...I didn't want to, but I couldn't stop' (p.244) Thus, he is battling with his emotions and wanting to erase the memory of the plane going into the twin towers; it was broadcasted repeatedly by the media, which is why Oskar finds it difficult to erase from his memory; the visual images from the past are still haunting his present. Moreover, Abby Black's face 'Face came incredibly close to my face...I thought about the falling body' (p.97). Memory therefore overwhelms and becomes something one suffers from without being able to control. Humans thus construct causes and effects of experiences so we understand why something has happened and how it links to what is happening in the present. However, the reason Oskar cannot understand the 9/11 attacks and his dad's death is because the event overwhelmed him to such an extent that his narrative capacity was consequently challenged.
LaCapra states that 'Trauma victims often repeat the traumatic event in their minds, since they can never forget what has happened to them'. Thus, Oskar's repetition of 'heavy boots' throughout the novel is a result of his trauma. The fact he kept re-playing his dad's answer phone messages, 'I listened to them, and listened to them again' (p.15) conveys the guilt he feels for not sharing these messages with anyone; this has created further trauma for him, 'That secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into' (p.71). He attempts to erase this memory and guilt through 'bruising' himself and thinking up inventions. Oskar further believes that he should still feel distressed, 'I didn't see why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies' (p.200). Even though years have passed, Oskar is living in the past and not able to erase the trauma of his dad's death from his memory.
The use of repetition is also conveyed through the visual narrative; images and structures of typography are often repeated throughout. Foer depicts broken up sentences as Oskar cannot hear his mum and therapist clearly, 'Don't know-a problem-you? -I don't' (P.203-7) This fragmentation is reflective of trauma itself; whilst narrative tries to make sense of the world, and take control, trauma involves dispossession and breaking things up. Narrative is thus working against trauma, which is emphasised through the visual text on the page. Uyterschout states, 'As writing fails, visual elements provide an adequate replacement of that which has to remain unsaid and unwritten' (71) Thus, the visual narrative throughout the novel serves as a powerful reminder that trauma breaks down existing structures of language, and can consequently affect our memories.
The erasure of memories is also a consequence of the erasure of identity. In The Road, the man and boy are not named, conveying a loss of identity; the father is a living memory/ghost of the past and he is keeping the old world and its memories in the past. He does not even recognise self in mirror, 'They came upon themselves in the mirror and he almost raised the pistol' (P.139). The man comes from an alien world to the boy, 'Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed'(p.163). The man is thus adapting to this new world, whilst trying to teach the boy the values and structures of the old world that he used to inhabit; he does not want to erase all memories of the past.
Moreover, the man finds many artefacts of his old civilization, and consequently realises how materialistic the past world was, yet he is hesitant to fully let go of his attachment to them. This reluctance highlights his difficulty in defining himself within this new world which is deprived of materialistic items, conveying how the old world made people superficial. This new traumatic world has shattered his old identity, yet he is still clinging on to aspects of his past. The boy, conversely, represents the new world and thus the identity which is being demanded; he shows little care about his father's memories, and instead focuses on what is left in this new world. When the man 'withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola' (p.22), this image conveys how objects, not language, revive memories. The coca cola can symbolises the old world and when the boy asks his father, 'I wont ever get to drink another one?' (p.23), it highlights the compete erasure of the past world; things will not be produced in this new world, only consumed. Moreover, when the father responds, 'Ever's a long time' (p.23), this is again emphasising his reluctance to let go of his old society; it serves as a poignant symbol of his past life.
Furthermore, when the father asks his son, 'Dont you want to see where I used to live?' (p.25) the son says, 'No'; he does not care, as he never lived in that world, so cannot empathise. As the father goes into the house he 'Pushed open the closet door half expecting to find his childhood things' (p.26-7), he finds emptiness, which is symbolic of how he feels in this new world; the man has to now find new things to identify himself with. He is experiencing a constant battle between his new identity and trying to forget the past world and its materialistic paraphernalia, whilst trying to hold on to some of the important aspects of the old world, such as morality. The notion of the man teaching his son good values links back to beginning of time; story-telling and oral tradition convey how the man is still trying to keep parts of the past world alive. Through instilling in his son all the old good moral values, the boy can keep these alive and there is a possibility of passing them onto future generations, which generates a sense of hope. This contradicts the notion that trauma leads to the definite erasure of memory; the father wants erase the traumatic event, and this is achieved through not speaking about it; but he does not completely erase past memories, since he wants to maintain his morality.
The identity of the old world itself has also been shattered as a result of the apocalypse; it now has a new identity, one where the purpose of morality and civilisation has changed. There is no government or rules; everyone is out for themselves and consequently, people's morals have changed and civilisation is broken down. The opening lines introduce loss of meaning in the world, 'Night dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one that what had gone before' (p.1). The world is literally dimming away from the past, reflected by the ominous darkening throughout. The boy's mother killing herself can also be symbolic of mother Earth dying out; there is no pastoral imagery and the fertile past has gone. The mother selfishly chooses the comfort of death instead of keeping hope: 'I should have done it a long time ago' (p. 57). Conversely, the boy's father believes he has a responsibility to uphold morality in this corrupt new world, 'We're survivors he told her across the flame of the lamp' (p. 57). The flame represents the small flame of humanity's moral compass, which the father and son are carrying. While the mother sees death as an escape from this horrible world, the father sees death as something that will extinguish the flame that he and his son are carrying.
The loss of identity is also explored through consuming, which is depicted by the cannibals. People have reversed back to a primitive state, and become animalistic. A group of cannibals have locked people up, slowly eating them, 'On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone and the stumps of them blackened and burnt' (P.116), emphasising how consuming is all these people care about. However, this is not necessary to survive; the man an boy are examples of this; the cannibals are selfish and heartless, and have lost all morality and human compassion. Conversely, the boy asks his father, 'Why would they have to do that?' (p.127) regarding the cannibals, highlighting the boy's morality. He was born into this new world, and thus is not corrupted, signifying hope for the future of this new world. The boy's compassionate nature is again highlighted when he insists on helping Ely, 'He could eat with us' (p. 175) despite being low on food; he thus sacrifices his huger to help others. McCarthy stresses the importance of morals to our identities, conveying how ultimately, our actions, whether moral or amoral, are all we have to truly identify ourselves and our humanity.