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American Literature 74.4 (2002) 747-778

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Toxins, Drugs, and Global Systems:
Risk and Narrative in the Contemporary Novel

Ursula K. Heise

Much work in the field of ecocriticism, established in American literary studies during the 1990s, assumes that the natural world is endangered, and that some of the human activities that threaten nature also put human health and life at risk. But while this assumption explicitly shapes a good deal of environmentalist politics and implicitly underlies most, if not all, ecocritical research, the concept of risk has so far rarely been subjected to theoretical discussion in ecocriticism. This omission is all the more remarkable considering that risk theory and risk analysis constitute a well-developed field of study in the social sciences, encompassing more than three decades of research. Perhaps because this field is not committed to the same environmentalist concerns that interest ecocritics, it has so far attracted little attention in ecological criticism. One exception is the work of Lawrence Buell, which engages some studies of risk in the analysis of what Buell calls "toxic discourse," textual and visual representations of exposure to hazardous chemicals. But even in his work, the notion of risk and the social scientific theories that have evolved around it play only a relatively minor role. 1 My essay will discuss connections among ecocriticism, risk theory, and narrative to suggest, on one hand, that a focus on the notion of risk as a literary theme can substantially sharpen and shift standard interpretations of some contemporary texts and, on the other hand, that a consideration of risk and the kind of narrative articulation it requires has potentially important implications for the analysis of narrative form.

My argument focuses on a particular type of risk—exposure to chemical substances—but similar analyses could be carried out, with [End Page 747] some modifications, for literary representations of other ecological and technological hazards. This focus allows me to foreground how my argument builds upon Buell's earlier analyses of toxic discourse but also how contemporary novelists use chemical substances as a trope for the blurring of boundaries between body and environment, public and domestic space, and harmful and beneficial technologies. My analysis begins with Don DeLillo's postmodern classic White Noise, whose exploration of a local risk scenario by means of satire raises complex questions about the role of realism and hyperbole in risk perception and representation. The second section lays out the theoretical background of this analysis in more detail by giving an overview of some important approaches and insights in risk theory. The third section returns to the literary representation of risk through a very different novel, Richard Powers's Gain, which examines risk in the context of complex global systems and thereby raises the question of how such systems can be effectively captured in narrative. These readings of particular texts may point the way toward some of the implications risk theory might have not only for a thematic study of literature but, beyond that, for the consideration of literary form.

"Unreliable Menace": White Noise

DeLillo's White Noise was published in January of 1985, only a little over a month after a toxic gas accident at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed at least two thousand people and injured thousands more. The coincidence was not lost on the novel's first reviewers, who pointed out the eerie echoes between the Bhopal accident and the toxic gas incident in the novel's middle chapter. 2 This "airborne toxic event" (WN, 117), as the media euphemistically call it, occurs in the Midwestern college town of Blacksmith, where professor of Hitler studies Jack Gladney lives with his wife, Babette, and their family. After an accident at a train depot, the gas Nyodene Derivative, a byproduct of pesticide manufacture, leaks from one of the wagons and forms a large cloud over Blacksmith, whose inhabitants receive the order to evacuate. En route to the evacuation camp, Jack Gladney is briefly exposed to the toxic gas. When the evacuees' health data are recorded at the camp...


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pp. 747-778
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