Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"You Must Remember This": Traumatic Postmemory and the "Cold War" Construction of Canon in Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"You Must Remember This": Traumatic Postmemory and the "Cold War" Construction of Canon in Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction

Article excerpt

The "event" of narcissism [i.e., the true structure of trauma] ... is really a question of something that never occurs, and at the same time never passes away, something that is impossible, a self-apprehension of the ego that is not a self-apprehension, a "splitting" that brings death at the very moment it brings the subject into being.

--Charles Shepherdson, "Telling Tales of Love: Philosophy, Literature, and Psychoanalysis"

It is the fluidity of experience and not its Platonic essence that is significant, for truth is relative, ever changing, indeterminate.... [Accordingly,] identity is not permanent; it is a philosophy of the individual, stubborn, self-reliant, and ultimately mysterious.

--Joyce Carol Oates, (Woman) Writer

Is there any mystery like who you finally turn out to be, Felix wondered.

--Joyce Carol Oates, You Must Remember This

IN HIS MOST RECENT NOVEL, THE COMING STORM (1999), Lambda Literary Award finalist Paul Russell draws the reader sympathetically into the lives of Claire Tremper and Libby Fallone, two unhappily married women who had at one time "been roommates together at Barnard College during a time when the world was settling in for the long haul of a cold war" (31). At that time, "The Bomb loomed over everything," Russell writes. "Spies and traitors lurked--in friends, family, perhaps even in oneself. So the official story ran" (31). "To compensate," we're told further, Claire and Libby "had invented other lives, a private world meant to augment the stifling, suspicious America that hemmed them in on all sides" (31). Such an America would perhaps have been more suited to the happily married Douglas Brill and his "energetic wife Mary Ann"--"a couple straight out of the fifties," Russell's narrator observes, a minor characterization "so uncomplicated, so dreary, in many ways perfect for the [prep-]school" world (190) in which all of the major characters in The Coming Storm are situated later in the 1990s.

For these major characters in the present day, the novel's prepschool--the very tony Forge School located in New York state's Hudson Valley--thus becomes the site of some extraordinary machinations in Russell's compelling narrative that the apparent simplicity and naivete of the Cold War 1950s can only serve to contrast. Headmaster Louis Tremper (Claire's husband), for instance, is clearly motivated by something more than a simple desire to fill an unexpectedly vacated English teaching position on his faculty when he hires the extraordinarily handsome and charismatic twenty-something Tracy Parker, a former Forge School alumnus. Tremper's conflicted marriage to Claire, and his continuing to work on the novels of the sexually embattled German novelist Thomas Mann, present the troubling case of a closeted homosexuality that can only be the match of the even more troubled Tracy Parker himself, whose same-sex attraction to the underage Noah Lathrop III excites and repulses Parker by turns given his longstanding friendship with the -positive Arthur, another Forge alumnus.

Moreover, the fact that Claire Tremper now finds herself attracted to Parker like her older severely repressed husband adds a further storm of emotional complication (to go with Russell's title) that intensifies even further when it is gradually revealed that the apparently innocent Noah Lathrop may be consenting to an illicit sexual relationship with his new Engish teacher merely as a means of striking out at the callous indifference of his usually coked-up and not easily scandalized father. Would that those apparently uncomplicated and perhaps now welcomingly dreary fifties might return in the face of such present day sexual and emotional turmoil. For Russell, therefore, one important aspect of his project in a novel dealing with traumatic subjects like paedophilia, intergenerational sex, queer sexuality and would appear to be the development of an arguably more current perception "that life might be rich, complicated, ambiguous . …

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