What is it like to lose a limb and gain a prosthetic? How would you communicate to others this embodied experience and make sense of having to incorporate technology into your bodily identity?
In October’s post, I introduced Harry Parker’s recent novel Anatomy of a Soldier, a semi-autobiographical account of limb loss and prosthetic gain. Parker centralises objects as the narrators of his novel, to bring an alternative perspective to understanding limb loss as a result of traumatic injury sustained during military service.
Where Part 1 focuses on the objects of Tom’s medical treatment on the battlefield, and then the immediate aftermath of his double amputation, this second part will explore the emerging relationship between Tom and the objects of his rehabilitation, namely his prosthetic legs. Tom regains consciousness and during rehabilitation begins to reclaim autonomy over his body. This brings a further dynamic to the relationship between man and technology, as inanimate objects become part of the technologised human body.
This incorporation of a technological appendage into bodily identity is an important part of Tom’s dual transition from able-bodied to amputee and from soldier to veteran. A key aspect of this transition for Tom is reconstructing his identity, whilst also understanding how he fits into society as an amputee.
When the reader meets Tom’s first prosthetic leg, the leg recalls how, “[y]ou pressed your stump into me and we became one for the first time. A man was crouched in front of you and guided us together” (Parker, 2017, 224). The object addresses Tom directly. Here is a new object-body relationship, in which Tom’s stump and his prosthesis will need to work together and negotiate a sometimes painful relationship so Tom can learn to walk again. There is an intimate connection between Tom and an object implied once again in the assertion that ‘we became one for the first time’. This is reminiscent of the bond between Tom and the earlier medical objects, but now there is less dependency and a more cooperative partnership is evident.
Beyond the practical implications of learning to walk again, Tom has to come to terms with how his bodily identity has been changed by the loss of his legs and the gaining of prosthetic limbs. After Tom’s amputation, Parker writes a chapter from the perspective of a mirror. Tom looks at his body consciously for the first time following his amputation. Parker writes, “[h]e knew I reflected what others saw, and it shocked him. He shook his head in disbelief. He was unnatural, created by violence and saved by soldiers and medics: he’d survived the unsurvivable and it showed. He felt disgusted” (Parker, 2017, 192). Tom’s initial reaction is to see his body as unnatural and he is conscious of how others will judge him. This negative attitude does not remain throughout the novel, but it is worthwhile illustrating some of the challenges Tom faces as part of his transition. It is clear at this early point that Tom’s concerns result from his awareness of the social expectation for his body to be a certain way, to fit ‘the norm’.
Later during Tom’s recovery he recognises that, “I’ve been a sick person in a bed, with no legs, broken in hospital. Now I’m getting stronger, I’m becoming a normal person with no legs” (Parker, 2017, 205). Tom faces the realisation that he is trying to fit an inadequate definition of what ‘normal’ is within a social context. This signals a key aspect of Tom’s transition – rediscovering what his definition of ‘normal’ is or should be. Whilst the reader is faced with constructing an identity for the character of Tom through his relationship with objects, in a parallel effort Tom is faced with having to reconstruct his identity in relation to the objects he interacts with.
Tom’s rehabilitation draws attention to objects, such as his prosthesis, as a key part of the amputee’s emerging and developing identity post-amputation, which confirms why it was an important choice for Parker to write from the point of view of the objects; Tom’s relationship with objects is at the centre of the new self-understanding he has to foster for himself. This also draws attention to the importance of an individual recovering their sense of self following a traumatic injury.
There is a dearth of contemporary popular literature that places military-service-related limb loss at the centre of a character’s experience to shape the plot of a novel. Anatomy of a Soldier brings to the forefront issues relating to the transition from able-bodied to amputee, in order to shed light on this lived experience.
Parker, H., 2016. Anatomy of a Soldier. London: Faber & Faber.