Academic journal article
By Cordle, Daniel
Critical Survey , Vol. 19, No. 2
I was a witness. I saw it happen. In dreams, in imagination, I watched the world end.
Tim O'Brien, The Nuclear Age
In Tim O'Brien's The Nuclear Age the narrator, William Cowling, gazes out of his aeroplane window at a United States alight with nuclear explosions. In Don DeLillo's End Zone nuclear war rapidly develops after a nuclear device explodes in Europe, and cities around the world are destroyed. In Douglas Coupland's Generation X a supermarket erupts in panic as sirens wail, jets are scrambled and a nuclear missile explodes. The opening frames of the film Thirteen Days are lit by the explosions of rocket propellant as a missile rises gracefully into the blackness of space. The earth's horizon is seen from the top of the missile's arc, and inverts as it heads back downwards. A nuclear explosion follows, more missiles leaping into the air are intercut with further explosions, and the sequence ends with a mushroom cloud boiling up to fill the screen. (1)
These are familiar and mesmerising Cold War images: the end of the world in a cataclysmic release of the energy locked inside matter. What makes these texts significant, though, is that these images of the end are placed under erasure. In one form or another, all of the episodes described are mental, not physical, events: in The Nuclear Age thermonuclear war is a traumatic hallucination of the novel's troubled protagonist, in End Zone it is the climax of a war game played by the apocalypse-obsessed narrator and in Generation X it is a story told amongst a group of friends. Thirteen Days simply leaves its opening sequence unexplained, and the audience is left to infer that it was a path history failed to take, for the film goes on to depict the successful attempt to avert the war depicted in the opening scenes, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As readers and viewers we are, therefore, asked to hold these images in suspension, frozen in our minds as deferred possibilities.
The Nuclear Age is particularly significant because it makes obsession with this constantly threatened but deferred possibility the overriding focus of the narrative. The novel's concern is not with the explosion of the Cold War into nuclear heat but with the experience of living with this threat, unresolved, over a long period of time, and it explores the psychological consequences of long-term, and seemingly unending, fear. This distinguishes it from most other texts dealing with nuclear issues, where resolution is provided either by the, admittedly horrific, depiction of nuclear disaster or, in the case of the nuclear thriller, aversion of disaster. This article begins with a discussion of the distinguishing features of O'Brien's 'nuclear anxiety' fiction, which it contextualises in terms of other literary representations of the bomb and research into the psychology of Cold War fear. It then goes on to discuss the problems of language and political engagement posed by the literary depiction of nuclear anxiety.
Articulating the Nuclear Threat: Fictions of Disaster and Anxiety
In the early evening of Monday 22 October 1962, President Kennedy went public on the crisis which brought the world closest to nuclear war. Appearing on United States television to announce the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, he stated that 'American citizens have become adjusted to living daily on the bull's eye of Soviet missiles'. (3) This sense of citizens as targets, of nuclear missiles as a modern sword of Damocles symbolising the insecurity not just of the great but of the many, might be expected to have had profound and far-reaching effects both on the general psychological disposition of the populace and, more specifically, on literature of the Cold War period. After all, for the half century of the Cold War, military nuclear technology represented the possibility of destruction on an unprecedented level. It signified not just war, but a threat to civilisation and even the existence of human life. …