Deborah Small’s stunning Routine Contaminations challenges the official and routine lies of 1950s Amerika. Small stretches beyond the simplest binary opposition and examines the flaws in our thinking that got us where we are today: en masse suffering from the after-effects of atomic tests conducted on Bikini Atoll from 1946-1958 whose fall-out fell out all over us, from the mountains, to the prairies, and from sea to shining sea.
Her characters, Dick and Jane, spring from the mind-numbing Dick-and-Jane Readers, which were employed to teach many of us how to read and how to behave. Dick is a conscienceless supervisor working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and thus for the University of California who administers it. Jane is his office mate, who out of conscience or consciousness, resigns. She begins teaching for the same UC system that will “shush” the faculty for incorporating progressive ideals in their curriculum-a mordant reminder that “academic freedom” is solely reserved for faculty who tow the line.
Small delineates the abuses of misapplied logic in order to justify the Bikini Islands as a testing ground for nuclear detonations (the Marshall Islands Project’s aims included explaining why, in non-alarmist terms, coconuts turned orange after the bomb detonations); and through juxtapositions of (sacred) mushrooms with mushroom clouds.
“All bachelors are unmarried men is the classic example of a tautological statement. Lord Kelvin was not a bachelor. Jane is married to neither a bachelor nor an unmarried man,” says Small (28), thus Jane must be married to Lord Kelvin! Small’s humorous appropriation of Lord Kelvin’s logic insists that we can’t assume that science and scientists have our best interests in mind if we are to survive.
Small also takes Amerika to task by quoting Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary, who in an official admission of wrongdoing on the part of the US in the bombarding of prisoners’ testicles with high levels of radiation at a prison in Oregon, said, “The only thing I could think of was Nazi Germany” (155). In a recent public address, Harold Pinter also described the Bush Administration as analogous to the Nazis.
Small couches her alarms in a beautifully produced and profusely illustrated book on gorgeous high-gloss paper stock, though “illustrated” is a bit of a misnomer-the art and text work together to create the book’s impact. The text augments the artwork just as much as the artwork illustrates the text.
The circularity and repetition of some of the key motifs in the text underscores the needless circularity and repetition of the tests themselves: the poisoning by radiation of Marshall Islanders, of the “Atomic Soldiers” and of other U.S. citizens unfortunate enough to be downwind. “Between July 1945 and September 1992, the United States conducted, by latest official count, 1,054 tests” on U.S. soil. “But who’s counting” (223). The overall effect of these statistics is startling and numbing, very much like the effect of the lists of the dead in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Small’s plague year, though, lasts 24,000 years-the official estimate of when the Bikini Atoll will again be inhabitable.
Small ends the book with “DOT. BOMB: A Narrative in 64 Parts,” which corresponds to the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, beginning with Hexagram One: Creative Power: Creative power is nothing less than the detonating device in the evolutionary bomb. Utilizing a haiku-like form of aphorisms and quotations from Thoreau, Dostoevsky, Dante, Rilke, Kafka, and Rachel Carsons (author of Silent Spring), Small delineates an affirmation in life in spite of our leaders. In Hexagram 63, Jane recites a passage from Rilke’s Duino Elegies to Dick: “Beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror, / which we still are just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” And Dick, whose very reason for being is his belief in science and technology even if it diminishes him, responds: “Beauty is shattering. Perhaps I am ready to be shattered.” Here, Dick echoes J. Robert Oppenheimer’s oddly phrased, “I am become death. Shatterer of worlds,” after Oppenheimer had witnessed the first atomic detonation in Alamogordo. Small’s astonishing art and prose detonates our belief in the system by insisting that the contaminations of our planet and of us are hardly routine.
Cedar Hill Books
San Diego, California
332 pages, paper, $24.00