Review | Words Fail Me by Christiana Spens

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  Christiana Spens


Words Fail Me: Violence, instability, and the limits of language in Aftermath by Preti Taneja (And Other Stories) and Commuters by Toby Christian (Koenig Books / Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König)

 

In a recent essay for The New Yorker, The Case Against the Trauma Plot, Parul Sehgal wrote about the ways in which trauma has become a cliché in fiction and memoir—a short-cut to assumed substance and characterisation, and a motivating event that spurs characters to act in certain ways, experience life in certain ways, and ultimately to justify, in many cases, what is in effect a real lack of personality. “Trauma trumps all other identities,” she points out, “evacuates personality, remakes it in its own image.”

This idea of the all-pervading presence of trauma – the subjective experience of violence, ultimately – and its bleaching out of all other traits and explanations, is a fascinating one. Sehgal’s point is that in using the trauma plot in this way, many writers fall back on human suffering as a neat literary device rather than interrogating it thoroughly or with any true sensitivity or insight, and doing so in a callous and even fatalistic manner that leaves little to the reader’s own imagination. There is scant attention paid to ‘post-traumatic growth’ for example, she writes, or simply the Stoical way in which many people live with trauma, out of necessity rather than narrative design. There is also little space for the reader to be genuinely uncertain, conversely, because the trauma plot has become, at times, a literary painting-by-numbers where those affected are stock characters with obvious outcomes.

…….“The trauma plot flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, …….instructs and insists upon its moral authority. The solace of its simplicity comes at no …….little cost. It disregards what we know and asks that we forget it, too—forget about the …….pleasures of not knowing, about the unscripted dimensions of suffering, about the odd …….angularities of personality.”

That is not to say that this pitfall cannot be avoided or overcome, however. As Sehgal also points out, “with a wider aperture, we move out of the therapeutic register and into a generational, social, and political one. It becomes a portal into history and into a common language.”

Aftermath by Preti Taneja (And Other Stories) is a work of narrative non-fiction concerned with the London Bridge terrorist attack on 29 November 2019, and in particular, the author’s own relationships with the perpetrator, Usman Khan, whom she had taught in a creative writing class in prison, and the victims, Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, whom she had worked with.

Whilst drawing on personal experience, Aftermath is not a straightforward or typical memoir, and in many ways, it reacts against this form, just as it responds to the fictionalisation of trauma in the ways criticised by Sehgal. Although arresting in its description of the events of that day, its lead up and aftermath, from the beginning Preti Taneja avoids solipsism or self-absorption. ‘It is the immediate aftermath,’ she writes. ‘“I am living at the centre of a wound still fresh.” The I is not only mine. It belongs to many.’

This awareness and interrogation of the communal aspect of trauma is the book’s key strength, and a welcome tonic to accounts of trauma that are focussed on the individual in such a way that the social processes and realities of traumatic events are missed. Taneja confronts how we write about and report on terror, trauma and loss of life, where these common narratives so often miss the mark, and how lack of effective communication is often influential in enabling violence to persist, tragically. As she points out:

…….“That I am writing a lecture, an essay, a memoir, a story      is a fiction I tell myself. …….Time strung out; time withholds      it will not conform to endemic structure. Unruly …….connections fuse and break      these moments defy narrative cohesion, which offer no …….protection in a state of going mad” (p.38)

Aftermath is also concerned on the limits of language when describing the experience of traumatic events and their consequences: how language can – and cannot – help us through such experiences, and also what narrative cannot do in our attempts to confront the reality of trauma. With profound insight and sensitivity, she reveals the role of language in power relations, whether between individuals and communities, or at the level of media and literature. She writes about Usman Khan in a personal and balanced manner, contextualising the horrific violence of his acts in a system that, through ‘breakdowns in communication’ and oversights – often negligence –allowed devastation through the fault of its design, or at least its application.

Language has failed, people have failed, and so people have died; there is no getting away from this profoundly disillusioning and heart-breaking reality. Then, to write again, to speak again, after all of this, is the greatest challenge, but one that Taneja embraces, out of necessity, determination and faith. This is not a typical redemption arc, or narrative; there is no denying the unutterable, senseless void that the author has felt and now records diligently and unsparingly. But to keep writing – to keep attempting to use language despite its flaws and the flaws of those who use it, is itself an act of strength. For it is to attempt to trust language again, and to trust in the power of communication, despite the greatest horrors.

While not explicitly about violence or trauma, Toby Christian’s latest book, Commuters (Cornerhouse) is nevertheless also book concerned with anxiety and threat, from the point of view of several commuters. It is lays out the limits and tyranny of language, by refusing to play by its rules. Presenting a series of vignettes, the book’s commuters travel between ominous objects and eerie spaces, from Vienna to Liverpool, and Matera to London. Commuters portrays a world of instability, flux, and absurdity and then the attempts to pin it down; it is a startling exploration of our flawed, strange perception of the environments around us. Therein, it is also an interrogation of language itself, and a destabilisation of our preconceptions about it through inventive and entertaining word play, so revealing the chasm between our own perspectives and those of others. In some passages, what appears nonsensical at first is, at closer inspection, merely another way of perceiving, and associating:

…….“Rafted by a bulging yellow bag, a squared, spearmint shutter. Blood-shot wedges the …….ball, and inside, the cat’s iris is flaming orange; highly visible, carefully reflective. In …….the centre of the cornea, a pelted chip starts a crack that crosses out.’ (p.15)

Ultimately, Commuters reveals how fragile and arbitrary so many of our connections and connotations are. It is concerned with the limits of language at the most foundational level, and the arbitrariness of the systems and rules we use in our description of the world around us; therein, it reveals how this complex system of communication determines how we think, imagine and live, as well as how we attempt to talk to one another. Why do we call things what we call them? Why not something else? In what ways are we limited by names, by terms, and by the imaginations and connotations of those whose languages we carry on?

There is also a sense that in changing the words around – in creating new combinations and comparisons – Christian has created some sort of subversion of the social norms that manifest in our use of language, in the ‘agreed-upon’ codes of conduct that we all, usually, unthinkingly accept. He presents a language that is essentially dissociative, and even disassociated; it echoes the destabilisation and confusion that the horror of trauma effects on the human mind; this exposes the void and chaos that were always there, and the threat of it, which was also always there, and which language and narrative find ways to wrestle with and order.

His is a poetry of the feral, and his language, as dazzling and meditative and revealing as it is, is also feral. Toby Christian presents an alternative language, as an act of intimacy: here is a new way to think and see—his own expression, the one he has made up as it seems correct to him. To read Commuters is to submit to the author’s idiosyncratic and arbitrary vision and words, and so, in its own way, it is to trust language in a way that is new and arresting—radical, even.

To accept this act of submission is, by its very nature, to understand how we do this already, every day, within the societal and interpersonal structures we take for granted. By demanding that we see in this new way, accepting these new connotations and connections, Christian shows how we are always operating according to the rules of an arbitrary and artificial system, which affects not just how we read or talk, but how we think and perceive as well, in the most essential way. We are all feral beings speaking (and thinking) into the void, inventing language as a way of transcending this wildness and chaos, and at times succeeding. As he writes: “Caught or snagged, they break apart. Up the sleeve, cherryade splashes the placket, and a snipped hem unravels.” (p.5) Reality is always about to disintegrate; language in the post-traumatic landscape is peculiarly and particularly precarious.

This existential conflict is at the heart of Christian’s book; his vision is playful and yet terrifying, for it is a world in which we have made everything up, more or less. Language is dead, he seems to say. And yet, we keep talking.

There is also something very Beckett-like about Toby’s work, and Taneja’s too. The worlds they reveal are horrifying and terrible, splintered and dark and absurd. And yet, they keep trying, as we all tend to, and there is a sense of hope alongside tragedy, a faith in a fragile, arbitrary system for the sake of all those who have no other way of being, or being-with-others, amidst it.

I am reminded, here, of Sartre’s Nausea, as well as his and his predecessor Heidegger’s philosophical writings about anxiety, boredom and existence and the ways in which these states, while difficult, divulge crucial insights into human nature itself. Both Christian and Taneja use language to express moods and states of profound alienation and angst, and in so doing they give insight into the nature of human existence and in particular, how it is defined by the looming threat of mortality, and the fear of meaninglessness, too.

In Aftermath, particularly, Taneja presents trauma to be an experience of death, whilst remaining alive; to experience trauma is to be forced to confront the brutal reality of certain, senseless death, and then to be sucked back into a life in crisis, lacking meaning and solution, with an unignorable void now revealed. It shows that our existence is permeated by the experience of and confrontation with death—through the death of others, and in the realisiation of our own definite mortality, too.

These books present not trauma plots, then, but the more challenging, truthful, and interesting antithesis—poetic, brutal accounts of human nature that stay with language even as it fails us, words as they make no sense, transforming them into new poetic visions that grasp at the impossible and intangible horrors in our midst.

 

Christiana Spens has published several books in the past, and writes about culture and politics for publications such as The Irish Times, Art Quarterly, Studio International, Prospect and Elephant Magazine, among others. She is represented by Akin Akinwumi at Willenfield Literary Agency.


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