- Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 by Richard C. Keller
By Richard C. Keller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. 240. $35.
Richard C. Keller’s Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 begins fittingly, in a cemetery just outside of Paris, where many of the “forgotten” of France’s most deadly natural catastrophe are buried. In telling some of their stories, Fatal Isolation brings to life the roles that health statistics, public health institutions, and even urban form play in public acts of remembering and forgetting. Keller’s book owes—and generously acknowledges—a debt to Eric Klinenburg’s 2002 book Heat Wave, on the 1995 Chicago disaster. However, Keller’s creative interdisciplinarity makes this book unique: as he leads his readers through Paris’s arrondissements, collecting and analyzing memories of the “forgotten,” he also makes wide ranging contributions to public health, urban studies, and French studies.
Keller’s first chapters offer riveting accounts of how public officials and the media identified, managed, and subsequently memorialized the crisis. Media coverage of the heat wave interrupted the annual August vacation period with footage of hectic emergency rooms and overcrowded morgues. By and large, the victims were people who lived and died without France’s much cherished state protections: the homeless, the poor, and especially the elderly. Keller shows the degree to which the varying interpretations of the tragedy aligned with long simmering debates over deeper crises facing French society: Was the death toll evidence of an underfunded and declining welfare state, as many on the left argued? Or, as many conservatives contended, were the “forgotten” evidence of the moral decline of an individualistic nation that had turned its back on the elderly? The allegorical qualities of the tragedy extend to the representations of the victims themselves, and Keller pays particularly close attention to a narrative strategy he calls “anecdotal life.” Anecdotal life is defined by “apparently random biographical moments,” which do less for humanizing the victims than for “fielding blame both for the state and those who surround the forgotten” (p. 59).
One of the book’s most original points of analysis concerns the forms of “place-based vulnerability” (p. 88) that are peculiar to the “deadly charm” (p. 188) of Paris’s architecture. Many heat wave victims lived in garrets, or chambres de bonne, an urban form that is a legacy of Haussmann’s nineteenth century reconstruction of Paris. These relatively low-rent, top floor units are small, isolated, poorly ventilated, and sweltering in the summer. The ubiquity of chambres de bonne in Paris means that the addresses of those who died defy common expectations regarding the distribution of vulnerability separating rich and poor neighborhoods, or the affluent city from its poorer suburbs. Keller thus provides his readers with [End Page 178] a new way to look at urban inequality by making the “microgeography of vulnerability” (p. 89) of the apartment building the focal point of analysis.
The final two main body chapters in the book focus on relegationist attitudes towards the aging population in France, at the level of the literary and sociological imagination (Chapter 4) and in the history of public health and policy (Chapter 5). A crude biopolitics animates Houellebecq’s novel La possibilité d’une île, which equates aging with disgust, as well as the work of epidemiologists who explained heat wave mortality as a “harvesting” effect (it hastens mortality for those in poor health, rather than merely causing excess mortality). To be clear, Keller offers nuanced analyses of both examples that do not reduce either to the same underlying cultural trope. However, across a range of contexts, illness, old age, and poverty take on the qualities of bare life existence. Keller engages with Joan Scott’s 2004 “French Universalism in the Nineties,” on Republican universalism, to argue that these unhealthy and often aged bodies are excluded from the French nation because they are unrepresentable as universal.
These contributions, and Keller’s often riveting prose, make Fatal Isolation a rare and sought-after type of book: it is of interest to scholarly readers across multiple...