book review

A Trauma Plot That Refuses the Obvious

Illustration: Vulture

Post-Traumatic, Chantal V. Johnson’s debut novel, introduces its heroine as a seemingly capable, self-assured 30-something with a laser-focused sense of justice. Vivian is a lawyer living in New York; in her work as a legal advocate, she helps patients at a mental-health facility navigate the court system. Her experiences lead her to believe it behooves the state to keep people unwell, that institutions are in fact at odds with the integrity of the individual. The nurses at the facility are her “adversaries. Their job was to keep people in; Vivian’s job was to get them out.” She watches one doctor sneer as he describes his patients during a court hearing, arguing that their struggles with mental health make most of them “wholly unassimilable” into society. She sees the judge concur. Lock them up.

Vivian’s solidarity with her clients, we soon discover, goes beyond empathy; she identifies with them. Both she and her best friend, Jane, an academic she met in law school, are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The two bond over their shared trauma: “They felt united together against everyone else, and considered themselves The Only People Talking About Rape, the Only People Brave Enough to Mention Rape Indiscriminately Whether in a Classroom or at Parties, in a Crowded Cafe or Your Grandmother’s Living Room, While Everyone Else in the World is Completely Useless in this Area.” In a post–Me Too landscape, their world is riddled privately and publicly by survivors and perpetrators; rape culture, as Vivian and Jane repeatedly point out, permeates every aspect of our world. It is hand in glove with the patriarchal order.

The friends get high, watch Unsolved Mysteries, and spin their stories of survival into comedy. Hitting back at a popular book on PTSD, Vivian jokes that the worst thing about experiencing abuse isn’t empathizing with your abuser — it’s “being the only girl in your kindergarten class with HPV.” Rape jokes are a tricky endeavor; Johnson has a canny sense of the thin line between dark comedy and the grotesque. But as the novel unfurls, Vivian’s humor and single-mindedness are revealed to be tenuous coping mechanisms. She is more fragile than she at first appears, precariously juggling a fractured family life, an often triggering job, disordered-eating patterns, complicated friendships and rivalries, and the dull morass of contemporary online dating. As her grip on this veneer of total control begins slipping, Post-Traumatic spirals into chaos. A terrible family reunion is the novel’s (and Vivian’s) fracture point. What follows is a reckoning.

Yes, this is a trauma novel. To review a novel grappling with PTSD is to write in the shadow of Parul Sehgal’s recent New Yorker essay “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” in which the critic suggests that trauma disorders have become contemporary narratives’ de facto explanation for any problem. This kind of plot, Sehgal argues, “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority.” But her manifesto leaves little room for self-reflexivity, for slipperiness; she largely skirts the possibility that narratives about trauma could generate internal tension — that they could play with, resist, or remap their own conventions.

Post-Traumatic isn’t reinventing the wheel nor does it seem to wish to. Still, it suggests that the trauma plot can be much more surprising than Sehgal and others imagine. Writing in a close third person, Johnson invites us to identify with Vivian and morally cosign her motives. Then, as the character’s breakdown ensues, Johnson allows us to become increasingly suspicious of her, less and less comfortable with how she looks at and treats others.

In crisis, Vivian quits her job, abandoning her clients. She sets out to wreck the life of an old antagonist. And she unceremoniously cuts off contact with her family. (This last decision becomes a point of heated contention with Jane, who insists the “Black family is under enough attack as it is.”) Post-Traumatic takes a knowing and nuanced stance toward the ways trauma intersects with American racial politics. Indeed, much of its satire depends upon its sense that, even in movements like Me Too, women of color are often shuffled to the margins. Vivian’s worldview is inextricable from her status as a Black and Puerto Rican woman from a working-class background. Driving through what she terms a “hood” area, Vivian thinks how she couldn’t discuss the cultural dynamics of these neighborhoods with a “white person without placing them in a rich sociohistorical context.” At one moment, Vivian dissociates, “seeing the entire history of Black suffering.” It would be impossible to separate histories of redlining, intergenerational trauma and poverty, and the overdiagnosis of “oppositional” disorders in Black youth from how she and Jane situate themselves in their world.

Johnson — a writer who is also a tenant lawyer — pulls off a delicate balancing act: She offers up Vivian’s paranoia, her shattered perspective, without calling into question the legitimacy of her pain. Early in the book, Vivian encounters a white woman named Pauline who tells her she wishes she’d had childhood trauma “for the story.” Pauline is beautiful; Pauline is a food influencer with a book deal who (like Vivian) is hiding an eating disorder; Pauline has a rich husband named Elliott. By the time Vivian runs into this woman again at a wedding, she is ready to reorient toward revenge. She decides to dose Pauline with a powerful weed strain and fuck her husband. “The sanctity of Elliott’s marriage was a nonissue,” Vivian tells herself. “Ethics were a nonissue … She didn’t care what happened to anyone, herself included.”

Here we find ourselves abandoned within the traumatized mind, experiencing the way Vivian now navigates the world. Doubt blooms — of Vivian, ourselves, both. Her empathy has gone haywire. She has come to believe she can decide who “deserves” harm; she’s lost sight of the difference between structural inequities and individual wrongdoing. Even she can see she has gone over to “the dark side.”

Despite the heaviness of the material, Post-Traumatic is highly readable. Johnson’s writing is witty and maximalist, with detailed scene descriptions and hyperverbal, culturally tuned-in dialogue. The characters deal in psychological lingo, talking about a “counterphobic reaction,” discussing the juridical history of marital rape, and citing Sara Ahmed’s theory of the feminist killjoy with casual ease. The novel sometimes seems as if it were written with one eye on the screen, with chapters titled like the episodes of a limited series: “Bad at Parties,” “So Ordered,” “Vivian at the Wedding.”

There is a long tradition of claims that writing about trauma and mental disorder must tend toward the navel-gazing — that prioritizing individual suffering obscures the bigger picture. A clear foremother for Post-Traumatic is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Plath first published her book in the U.K. in 1963, under a pseudonym. When she had sought out an American publisher, both Knopf and Harper rejected the book, writing in their letters to Plath that the book was “more of a case history,” that its protagonist Esther Greenwood’s “experience remains a private one.” Yet The Bell Jar insists that Esther’s seemingly irrational breakdown was in fact an entirely rational response to the collapse of her world’s social order: The first lines of the book are about the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

Like that book, Post-Traumatic reveals sociopolitical rot by way of one woman’s crack-up. It also has much in common with Michaela Coel’s series I May Destroy You, which Sehgal cites in her essay, writing that its “most interesting strands follow the ways that focusing on painful histories can make us myopic to the suffering of others.” In writing Vivian, Johnson contends that the stories that fit into a recognizable trauma map may not be peopled by ruined victims and mustache-twirling perps who wander through a perfect moral universe — in which consent presents itself with glimmering transparency and harm never transpires in the gray zone.

We are living in a moment of cultural backlash — against feminist politics, against Me Too and other indictments of rape culture. In writing a character and a novel with such careful nuance, Johnson makes it clear that these issues have never been cut-and-dried. “Ambiguity,” muses Vivian, “was horrifying in real life.” Yet it is ambiguity that gives Post-Traumatic its power.

A Trauma Plot That Refuses the Obvious