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  • States of Suspense: The Nuclear Age, Postmodernism and United States Fiction and Prose
  • Teresa Shewry
Daniel Cordle. States of Suspense: The Nuclear Age, Postmodernism and United States Fiction and Prose. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2008. x + 172 pp.

While literary stories about nuclear disasters have attracted substantial critical attention, in States of Suspense: The Nuclear Age, Postmodernism and United States Fiction and Prose Daniel Cordle reveals a different, more marginal literary history in which fiction writers interpret the experience of waiting for devastating nuclear conditions that were threatened yet deferred by Cold War policy. From 1945 to 2005 United States fiction and prose shaped, and was shaped by, "nuclear states of suspense" and their attendant affect: anxiety. Traces of this anxiety are present in literary accounts of homes and cities, and the discourses of environmentalism, gender, and psychology. Engagingly written and carefully researched, States of Suspense mobilizes diverse scholarly fields, including literary studies, postmodernism, nuclear criticism, Cold War history, environmental and urban literature, and psychology.

States of Suspense provides an important new area of concern for post-Cold War, second wave nuclear criticism, moving beyond a focus on how literature has imagined nuclear disaster to consider how it registers suspense and anxiety. Cordle maps these concepts in the introduction and first section of the book, "The nuclear age." He explores the production of suspense and anxiety through Cold War geopolitical strategies that held people's lives at the verge of destruction, and then clarifies their muted appearances in literature through research on the psychological impact of living in the suspended temporality of deferred nuclear war. For many people, nuclear weapons were on the edges of thought, since "it was generally easier not to think about nuclear war directly" (141), and so nuclear contexts were absorbed into cultural accounts of everyday life rather than simply registered through direct representations of their devastating capacities. This new angle of engagement enables Cordle to reread canonical texts about nuclear disaster for how they register anxiety as well as to consider texts that are rarely, if ever, read in terms of nuclear contexts. These include works that focus solely on nuclear anxiety rather than on the catastrophic impact of exploded bombs, and postmodern fictions that are not obviously about nuclear contexts at all but that are tinted with anxieties that are recognizably historical to the nuclear age, such as concerns for contamination, foreshortened futures, and species death.

Cordle situates the anxiety that attends nuclear weapons partly in the context of transnational political and literary dynamics, asserting of US literature, "it is better to conceive less of an isolated national [End Page 764] tradition, than of a network responsive to connections around the globe" (9). He productively engages US fiction alongside literature from places like Australia and Canada. In drawing attention to the comparative and transnational qualities of nuclear anxiety, Cordle opens up rich, important pathways for future nuclear criticism. Work following States of Suspense might intensify and elaborate issues such as the unevenness among experiences of nuclear suspense and anxiety around the world. It might also explore the potential limitations of such terms for understanding how people experience and remember nuclear conditions of life and the parameters of war in places like Japan or nuclear bomb testing sites of the Pacific, Australia, and the continental United States.

As well as moving across national borders, nuclear anxiety cuts across the spaces of the city, home, and planet in uneven, unstable ways. In section 2 of States of Suspense, "Nuclear environments," Cordle explores these places of Cold War imagination. He argues that the city has particular resonance in nuclear narratives where it is rendered through recurring motifs such as fear of the sky or abrupt transitions between worlds. The home is also a category around which nuclear anxiety manifests. Here, literature reworks discourses that tie together notions of national defense and ideologies about the family, the domestic, the clean, and the deviant. As well as focusing nuclear anxiety on the differentiating scales of the home and the city, fiction writers articulate the planet and nature as the places of impending nuclear destruction and alternative futures. Cordle traces overlaps between imaginaries of the earth as threatened by...


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pp. 764-766
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