"Compared Favorably to Faulkner": On Stories of Inherited Trauma

I’m moving tomorrow, which means that this month’s reading has been a little strange—a combination of stress-relief popcorn-reading and getting through the books I’ve owned for months or years without cracking open, so I can finally read them and then give them away. (I know not everyone shares this philosophy, but I prefer to downsize all but a very slowly growing shelf of sentimental-value books when I move. And after three years in my current apartment, I had accumulated quite a few to rehome.)

That said, I’ve noticed an accidental common theme in the stories I’ve been consuming this month—from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things to Philip K. Dick’s The World Jones Made; from BoJack Horseman to N. K. Jemisin to Transparent. I’ve by chance been focusing on works about the idea of inherited trauma, the suffering, evolution, and repeated mistakes of a collective identity. This theme can be cultural, historical, familial—it can weigh on a character as broadly as millennia of Jewish diaspora weigh on Ali in Transparent or as personally as Rahel and Esthappen’s semi-shared “two-egg twin” consciousness in Roy’s novel. It’s the idea that, one way or another, characters are unconsciously motivated by memories and experiences that are not their own.

Like most psychology, this element is maybe easier to deploy—and assert as a general rule of human consciousness—in fiction than in reality. It depends a lot on dramatic irony to fully resonate, the kind of profound third-persona reader’s clarity we can only wish for in “real life.” But at the same time, it wouldn’t have such power us in fiction if it’d didn’t feel so deeply correct.

The jacket copy on my paperback of The God of Small Things lauds it, with a kind of funny clarifying adverb, as “compared favorably to the works of Faulkner.” This is relatively common praise, I’ve found, in blurbs for lyrical literary novels of family—the way all high fantasy of any merit, and some without, seems to “deserve a place on the shelf next to Tolkien.” I think now that the Faulkner comparison might have a lot to do with this idea of inherited trauma, broad or narrow, acting on and driving characters without their understanding. It looms so large in most of his work—it’s at the core of the-past-is-never-dead-it’s-not-even-past-ness.

It’s a theme I love in storytelling, and one I’m paying attention to in my own work (which, yes, has been torpedoed by the move as well. October’s revision schedule is correspondingly ambitious.) An inheritance that goes beyond genetics or learned behavior, to something subliminal or even supernatural. Pappachi’s moth; the Sugarman cabin; the Pfeffermans’ aunt lost in the Holocaust. Maybe in our new place we can build a shelf specifically for these novels on a theme: “compared favorably to the works of Faulkner.”