- Infrastructures of Apocalypse: American Literature and the Nuclear Complex by Jessica Hurley
The fact that the world hasn’t witnessed a nuclear attack since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a modern miracle. Yet recognition of this miracle can make it all too easy to believe that nuclear weapons haven’t killed anyone since 1945. One recent analysis, cited by Jessica Hurley in her impressively [End Page 187] researched Infrastructures of Apocalypse, suggests that as many as 400,000 American deaths between 1952 and 1988 were caused by the carcinogenic effects of atmospheric nuclear testing. This horrifying observation exemplifies Hurley’s argument that an “exclusive attention to the bomb’s detonation often serves to occlude the ongoing violence of the nuclear complex” (184). Whereas most literary critics have theorized the nuclear age in terms of anxieties regarding an imminent apocalyptic war that never actually arrived, Hurley focuses instead on the nuclear complex, the very active sector of the military–industrial complex responsible for producing and disposing of nuclear materials. The development of nuclear technology irreversibly altered the politics, history, economy, and geography of the United States. By attending to these infrastructural changes and to the ways they have been recognized and reflected in popular fiction, Hurley’s book presents “a new literary history of post-1945 America” (4).
Recognizing that her subject matter has often privileged white authorial perspectives, Hurley instead offers “a nuclear criticism from below” (15). By focusing on the reality of the nuclear complex rather than on the imagination of nuclear war, she reveals how the apocalyptic framework of Cold War policies characterized Black, queer, and Native Americans as “futureless”—how, in other words, official narratives of victory in the nuclear arena were often premised upon the apocalyptic annihilation of such communities deemed peripheral to the nation’s central story. US cities, for example, were imagined by state agencies as inevitable targets in a nuclear war; white Americans were accordingly incentivized to move to the suburbs, which were linked together with the new superhighway system (partially funded by the Department of Defense), while Black Americans were left to remain in the defunded cities to serve as the primary casualties of a nuclear attack. Similarly, uranium mining and atomic testing sites were established on or near Native reservation lands, which the US government designated as low-population and low-use, and therefore expendable. Attention to these matters requires a shift away from depictions of future atomic warfare and instead toward what Hurley calls the “nuclear mundane” (9)—a recognition of the evolving material realities of the here and now rather than an anticipatory vision of a catastrophic end.
Over four chapters, Hurley closely examines five novels and one play: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957); James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968); Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975); Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1993); David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996); and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991). But Infrastructures of Apocalypse is not just an assemblage of close readings; it is also a wondrous work of carefully researched cultural history. Hurley engages with a very broad array of scholarly sources, and the historical context in which she situates her textual analyses will be of interest to anyone working in twentieth-century literary and cultural studies.
By responding to key critical works by scholars such as Paul Boyer, Daniel Grausam, Jacqueline Foertsch, and Alan Nadel, Hurley draws our attention to the central double-bind of the Cold War: the ideological promotion of self-reliant individualism coupled with the insistence that only a secretive, powerful military state can prevent global obliteration. (Only Uncle Sam can protect you from nuclear annihilation—but in all else you must protect yourself!) Ironically, this double-bind often led to a belief that the state would prove ineffective—ultimately unable to prevent nuclear war, which would in turn create a postapocalyptic environment favoring only a handful of prepared survivalists. Democracy...