- "Ordinary Pocket Litter":Paper(s) as Dangerous Supplement(s) in Cold War Novels of Intrigue
"[Y]ou know I never write on anything..."Jacques Derrida, The Post Card
In Mickey Spillane's One Lonely Night (1951), arguably his most overtly cold war–oriented novel of private investigative intrigue, detective-hero Mike Hammer encounters a commie siren named Ethel Brighton, who leads him into a world of atomic brinksmanship and stolen documents. In a key moment, Mike hears a radio report (although later he thinks about the frightening news as displayed in "the papers") that "The latest development in the process for the annihilation of man had been stolen. Supposedly secret files had been rifled and indications pointed to the duplication of secret papers" (100). In a plot more convoluted than even the typical Hammer yarn, both Mike and a communist general chase these documents across a landscape littered with cigarette packs, lost IDs, and torn coat pockets (not to mention two or three brutally dispatched bodies); obviously his Red adversaries have dealt Mike a serious setback, and Mike pictures "the world in flames" (100), ignited, ironically, by papers and the secrets they contain. In a later scene, Ethel ignites a cigarette in his mouth, and Mike wonders if he "could be contaminated by [her] fire" (123), although his paranoid [End Page 278] fear of catching her communist mind-set would translate more sensibly into a fear of voracious, world-consuming fire, and a fear for the papers that constitute this world, which would go up instantly in smoke. In the novel, Spillane posits a relationship between paper and not only nuclear holocaust but also the plots of intrigue designed to avert or realize such; as papers both sustain and threaten the spies and private eyes fighting to the death for their possession, so they are fought over for their precious rarity—as if they were diamonds or gold, although these hard substances would fare much better, might be all that were left, in the aftermath of nuclear conflagration. In this essay I will examine the role of paper in canonical novels of intrigue written during the cold war decades succeeding Spillane's own, and I will draw upon the insights of an impassioned philosopher of the antinuclear, Jacques Derrida, to do so.
In his writings on the subject, Derrida read the nuclear as a specific threat to "the archive"—all literature, all texts, life itself. Its pronounced susceptibility to the flames of holocaust distinguishes the archive from Derrida's more famous and familiar themes of writing, the trace, and iteration, concepts that, however productively engaged, exist on a theoretical plane removed from and thus powerless to embody an ethical imperative against grave planetary threats like the nuclear arms race. Peter Schwenger theorizes the archive—that is, he transforms it from concrete (yet fragile) entity into theoretical concept—by opposing Derrida's "archival idea" to "print on a page...the book...as physical object" (16; emphasis added), the physical object in this case being Maggie Gee's nuclear novel, The Burning Book (1983). Yet I locate this "burning book" already at the heart of Derrida's nuclear criticism—in the figure of the archive itself, whose power comes from its frailty, its constitution as paper. Elsewhere I have considered the relationship between the specter of the nuclear and the reality of the cold war, contrasting the nuclear's explosive (even orgasmic) finality with the cold war's feverish, furtive, endless deferral (or deterrence) of world destruction, but with anxiety, paranoia, and (inter)national hysteria resulting inevitably instead. Similarly, the paper-based archive disintegrates in the nuclear scenario, while in novels of intrigue—specifically Don DeLillo's Libra (1988) and John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)—paper and, distinct from this, [End Page 279] papers proliferate and sustain the networks of conspiracy, betrayal, and death that define the genre.1 If the relationship between the archive and the nuclear is supplemental—its fragility is strong enough to endlessly stave off nuclear annihilation—so the remarkable versatility of paper in the novels analyzed here indicates precisely the limitations and weaknesses of the...