Daniel Cordle, States of Suspense

Daniel Cordle, States of Suspense: The Nuclear Age, Postmodernism and United States Fiction and Prose (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008). ix+172pp. £50.00 hb. ISBN 978 0 7190 7712 8.

Daniel Cordle’s brilliant analysis of North American literature during the Cold War focuses not on images of nuclear destruction, but instead on descriptions of nuclear anxiety. While scenarios of nuclear holocaust are shocking, Cordle argues that disaster novels tend to be politically one-dimensional, rarely going beyond the obvious point that use of nuclear weapons would create horrific devastation. Cordle also persuasively argues that the nuclear explosion often functions as catharsis, releasing the tension that is built up in anticipation of disaster. Nuclear explosion can further function as a destructive wish-fulfillment fantasy: if modern society is decadent, its destruction can satisfy primitivist-utopian fantasies of a simpler and more authentic existence arising out of the ruins (126-27). Science fiction author Brian Aldiss made a similar point in his criticism of the genre of ‘cosy catastrophe’.

Nuclear weapons have not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet the Cold War was a period of suspense in which nuclear holocaust was widely anticipated. Anxiety was the defining characteristic of the era. Beneath the surface of everyday life was the knowledge, often suppressed from consciousness, that all could come to an end in an instant. Focusing on this anxiety, Cordle moves beyond disaster and science fiction genres to take in a much broader range of mainstream literature. The book will be particularly interesting for literature scholars for its analysis of how nuclear themes are articulated by ‘postmodern’ writers such as Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and others. Cordle demonstrates how nuclear anxiety intrudes into the narrative of novels that do not straightforwardly express a nuclear theme. Cordle also opts, I think sensibly, not to be overly constrained by the notion of ‘United States literature’, given the fluidity of English-language literature and culture and the political importance of ‘Atlanticism’ in the period (9-10). So he is able to include, for example, an English author such as John Wyndham or a Canadian such as Douglas Coupland.

Cordle’s book can also be read not only as a work of literary criticism, but also as a cultural history of the Cold War United States. The literature of the period draws on and describes the experience of Cold War life, including the psychological and existential dimensions of living as a Cold War American citizen. Cordle’s analysis of the geo-political context for American mid-20th century literature also provides numerous insights into how geo-politics intruded into or structured everyday life and social and individual consciousness. Cordle evocatively describes the ways in which nuclear anxiety was experienced, took shape in people’s consciousness and interacted with everyday life. Mass civil defense exercises in the US were orchestrations of psychological warfare by the US government, attempting to shape the ‘home front’, turning existential terror into more politically useful fear (49). But such exercises, leaving New York streets eerily empty as people sought shelter, also gave a vivid realism to the idea of the city as a vulnerable target for nuclear attack. Civil defense made visible what much of what Cold War culture was geared toward repressing, and by the late 1950s and early 1960s such exercises attracted protesters, occupying rather than obediently retreating from public space (70).

Despite such protest, the retreat from public to private space was a prevalent response to nuclear anxiety and was important both as an ideological structure and as a feature of everyday life. Cordle draws very effectively on Alan Nadel and Elaine Tyler May’s work on ‘containment culture’ in order to trace how literary representations of domesticity were charged with nuclear meaning. Home was a key motif and structure of Cold War ideology and it is no wonder that nuclear anxiety was frequently expressed in images of threatened domesticity. With political life tied to the seemingly unmovable bureaucratic apparatus of the military-industrial complex and public life carrying reminders of the ever-present existential threat of nuclear war, there was a strong psychological impetus to seek comfort in the private domestic sphere. Cordle connects this political retreat to the private sphere to the existential terror associated with the nuclear threat. Nuclear fear, as he insightfully puts it, is ‘agoraphobic’: death will come from the sky, safety is to be found in small, enclosed spaces (33-34).

The multiple threads of the book’s argument are drawn together, and Cordle’s interpretative skill comes through most impressively, in his sustained analysis of Tim O’Brien’s novel The Nuclear Age (1985) which Cordle takes to be ‘the quintessential nuclear anxiety text’ (130). In this novel, ‘digging in’ is the protagonist’s physical act of digging a fall-out shelter in his backyard, but it also operates as a metaphor for psychological retreat from a threatening social and public world. There is a tension between these two forms of ‘digging in’ – the first is an act motivated by the overwhelming consciousness of nuclear threat, the second is an embrace of an ideology of domesticity which requires repression and denial of this threat in order to achieve a comforting but illusory normalcy. Cordle elegantly weaves together themes of nuclear threat, domesticity, and post-war consumer affluence. He traces the interconnections between the degradation of public life under the shadow of the bomb and the privatization of existence through family ideology and consumerism.

In his concluding discussion of the politics of nuclear anxiety literature, Cordle suggests that this literature presents a critical portrait of the relationship between the individual self and modern power. The self is fragmented. Protagonists are ‘asocial, alienated… isolated, paralyzed, frozen’ (136). I think this is an important insight with far-reaching implications. It seems to me that the Cold War anxiety that Cordle describes has a close affinity with Marx’s conception of alienation. This is at its root the human loss of control over the world that we create. The sense of meaninglessness that the nuclear threat casts over everyday life can also be understood as a feature of alienation. This sheds light on the duality of Cold War experience, in particular the co-existence of consumer affluence and existential terror. For example, the psychological manipulation of fear by national security propaganda coexisted with the manipulation of desire by advertising. Retreat into domesticity was also a retreat into the privatized concerns of consumerism: ‘mowing lawns and buying things’ (125). The critical sense that there was something illusory about these consumer comforts was expressed as ‘the bombs are real’ (127), but has further meaning as a critique of the passivity, lack of meaning, and lack of human connectedness that characterizes consumer capitalism. Affluence vs. annihilation is the most glaring contradiction of a social reality riddled with contradictions.

Cordle argues that nuclear anxiety is still a feature of our culture refracted through new threats such as global terrorism (16-17). In so many ways, the bombs are still real – in spite of stockpile reductions, these weapons still threaten the human survival. Biological weapons have recently conjured similar anxieties, expressed in fiction and popular culture, as well as politics. And a ‘sense of futurelessness’ (35) is carried also by the ecological threat from global warming. But there are also continuities in the social dimensions of anxiety, in particular the sense of powerlessness that Cordle points to as expressed in this literature (6-7), and the compensations offered by consumerism. In thinking about these continuities, one is reminded of George W. Bush’s exhortation to the American public after 9/11 to support their country by shopping. By moving from an analysis of the literature of destruction to the literature of anxiety, Cordle has very fruitfully broadened the scope of nuclear criticism. His analysis of the politics of anxiety suggests the possibility of a further broadening: that nuclear criticism can be understood as social criticism, moving beyond a critique of the bomb to the underlying social and political relations that couple technological power with human powerlessness.

Charles Thorpe, University of California, San Diego