Reading List for ENGL 459: Disaster Fiction (Fall 2009)

Here’s the official reading list for ENGL 459 on Disaster Fiction, along with a quick breakdown of the class’s organization:

Part I: The Disaster Novel

Part II: The Postmodern Disaster Novel

Part III: Apocalyptic Journeys

Part IV: The Disaster of History

You can find a more visual display of the reading list as well.

Fall 2009 Course Descriptions

I’ve got two fantastic advanced literature classes planned for Fall 2009:

ENGL 459 (Disaster Fiction)

This class explores what the influential critic and novelist Susan Sontag called “the imagination of disaster.” Sontag was speaking of Hollywood cinema of the fifties and sixties, arguing that end-of-the-world films of this era simultaneously aestheticize destruction and address a perversely utopian impulse for moral simplification. But what about disasters in contemporary fiction? While natural and unnatural disasters have provided Hollywood with predictable script material for decades, less familiar are the meditations on disasters that serious novelists have taken up in literary fiction. In this class we will consider how novelists imagine disaster. From uncontrollable natural disasters to planned nuclear annihilation, from swift destruction unleashed by human avarice to the slow death of a dying world, we will examine the ways fiction reaffirms, questions, or rewrites the modalities of disaster. Along the way we will consider the social, historical, and political contexts of disaster fiction, exploring what it means to “think the unthinkable” in different times and places. Among the writers we will study are Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Ursula Le Guin, Cormac McCarthy, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others.

ENGL 493 (The Graphic Novel)

This course considers the storytelling potential of graphic novels, an often neglected form of artistic and narrative expression with a long and rich history. Boldly combining images and text, graphic novels of recent years have explored divisive issues often considered the domain of “serious” literature: immigration, racism, war and terrorism, sexual abuse, and much more. Informed by literary theory and visual culture studies, we will analyze both mainstream and indie graphic novels. In particular, we will be especially attentive to the unique visual grammar of the medium, exploring graphic novels that challenge the conventions of genre, narrative, and high and low culture. While our focus will be on American graphic novelists, we will touch upon artistic traditions from across the globe. Graphic novelists studied may include Kyle Baker, Alison Bechdel, Alan Moore, Wilfred Santiaga, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, and Gene Luen Yang.

Disaster Porn: Airplanes Crashes!

Google Maps Mania recently highlighted a website that should satisfy your urge for disaster porn during that dry spell between hurricane season and tornado season: AVCRASH, a Google Map mashup with aviation accident (i.e. plane crash) data from the National Transportation Safety Board. You can narrow your search by time period, location, type of aircraft, even number of fatalities.

ScreenShot003.pngSo I know, for example, that on 1/13/2006, a Piper PA-30 went down near Fresno, California, killing the pilot and all three passengers.

The NTSB’s full report, conveniently linked to the map, tells me further (and get ready for the soft core disaster erotica) that “Vertical aft accordion crushing was evident on the forward engine.” Oh, baby. And then there’s this sexy image: “The right propeller was located approximately 3 feet from the right wing tip and buried in soil.” That is so hot. But what about some wing-on-wing action, can we have some of that? “The empennage section was circumferentially buckled 3 feet forward of the vertical stabilizer.” Omigod, it’s better than “Planes Gone Wild Seatac Style”!!!

Okay, I admit it, I’m being a tiny bit facetious (though those quotes are real). The disaster porn really doesn’t do much for me. But it must for somebody out there. Why else would you go to all the trouble to make AVCRASH?

I know! To sell airplane insurance!! It makes perfect sense, in a bizarro world, to entice potential customers to buy your aviation insurance, when you enable them to see in such grueling detail all the things that can go wrong when you go up in a plane. Why, the kind people at Aviation Marine Insurance have even included a handy “Get Quote” button on the bottom of the map.

Maybe later. I’m too busy right now drooling over the way the “left propeller was examined, still attached by two flange bolts to the left engine.” Oh yeah, oh yeah.

This is a test, this is only a test.

“The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing…..There is no substitute for a planned simulation.” So says a character in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, as a midwestern town is overrun by men in Mylar suits, conducting a simulated evacuation from some vague chemical disaster.

Yesterday we had out own rehearsed disaster here at the McGuire Nuclear plant. Here is the official news release, sent via email to local residents:

On Tuesday, August 9, 2005 McGuire Nuclear Plant, Mecklenburg County Homeland Security, and regional first responder agencies will conduct a full-scale facility exercise to test the plant’s response systems as well as local resources and their capabilities in the event of an emergency. So if you live in Huntersville you may see more activity around the plant than normal, no worries. We will share the results after the event debriefing, take care, and be safe.

I had really wanted to go hang around the plant to see what a “full-scale” exercise looks like, but unfortunately I was out shopping. Nothing big, just some groceries—milk, cereal, whatever. Come to think of it, maybe my trip to the store was some sort of defense mechanisim. As Jack Gladney observes, once again in White Noise, “Everything was fine, would continue to be fine, would eventually get even better as long as the supermarket did not slip.”

The irony of it all is that the supermarket is, according to the email Duke sent out, likely more dangerous than a nuclear power plant. The email continues:

People have always been exposed to low levels of natural radiation. These levels provide a “background level” for comparison to exposures that occur from man-made sources. Basically, natural radiation is the result of cosmic rays from outer space and from radioactive materials in the earth. Man-made radiation comes from a variety of sources including medical and industrial uses, nuclear weapons testing, consumer products, and the nuclear power industry.

Damn those “consumer products”!!! I like how the email nestles this phrase in between the equally innocuous phrases “nuclear weapons testing” and “nuclear power industry.”

The good people at Duke Power then attached an informative graphic which details exactly how tiny a threat our neighborhood nuclear reactor poses:

Dangers of Radiation

What I love about this image is the juxtaposition of the Coleman lantern and the nuclear power plant. (Although, as I’ve mentioned before, McGuire Nuclear Power Plant looks disappointingly nothing like the towering nuclear plants of my childhood imagination, which is how the nuclear reactor appears in this image.)

This image informs me that natural background radiation is 300 times greater than the radiation released by a low-level nuclear waste storage facility. If that’s true, why is one of the lead stories in this morning newspapers the EPA’s announcement that the Yucca Mountain Facility in Nevada, where much of the nation’s nuclear waste is stored, should shield the outside world from radiation for 1,000,000 years? As most critics note, the one million years rule is a ruse to conceal the fact that the EPA is actually raising the allowable radiation limit for the first ten thousand years of those million years–the years that probably matter more to the Nevadan citizens living near Yucca Mountain.

Warning!! Stay Indoors

What Calendar is complete without evacuation plans?
(Larger Image)

Detail from the McGuire Emergency Planner
(Larger Image)

And here is more from my McGuire Emergency Planning Calendar, mailed by the nuclear family of Duke Power to every local resident just in case.

My very own evacuation strategy!

Three things I might be told to do? (1) Stay indoors (2) Run for the hills Evacuate (3) Take potassium iodide (KI).

Hmm, I think’s Option #2, all the way.

Warning!! Unusual Event!!

My Emergency Planning Calendar from the local nuclear power plant includes many helpful reminders, such as:

  • Martin Luther King Day is January 17;
  • March 20 is the first day of spring;
  • Father’s Day is right around the corner on June 19;
  • July 5 sees the emergency siren test at 11:50 AM;
  • And “there are four classifications used to describe a nuclear station emergency” at McGuire.

Illustration from McGuire Nuclear Power Plant Guide

Here’s a close-up of the four classifications:

Emergency Classifications

I love the language Duke Power uses here, especially for the first order of emergency: “An Unusual Event.” According to Duke,

    An Unusual Event is the least serious of the four classifications. It means there is a minor problem at the station. Because of strict federal regulations, a number of problems are reported as Unusual Events even though they pose no danger to the public.

First of all, do they have to capitalize the “U” and “E”? Any event becomes Unusual when capitalized!!

Secondly, I can’t help wondering whether these Unusual Events really “pose no danger to the public.” You’d think that after White Noise, in which an Airborne Toxic Event plays a major role, power companies would be wary of using the word “Event” to describe any, well, event.

Warning!! Emergency Planning Calendar!!

I know it’s not July yet, but I wanted to share this lovely photograph of a local watershed, found on the July page of a calendar that I received in the mail, free, a few months ago.

Peaceful July in my Monthly Planner
Peaceful July in my Monthly Planner

Who could be sending out these gorgeous free calendars to all the area residents? Why, Duke Power, of course.

I’ve already mentioned my friendly local nuclear power plant owned and operated by Duke Power. Merely as a friendly reminder that my neighbors and I should have our evacuation routes memorized, Duke mails these calendars out every year.

McGuire Emergency Planner Calendar
McGuire Emergency Planner Calendar

On the cover is a nice panoramic view of McGuire Nuclear Power Station. I’ve got to say, I’m not too impressed with those cooling towers. They’re short and squat, like smooshed grain silos. They’re nothing like the technologically sublime cooling towers of my childhood, spewing steam from enormous hourglass concrete structures.

Like, say, at Three Mile Island.

Three Mile Island (NARA)
Three Mile Island (NARA)

Now that was a nuclear power plant. Incidentally, this oblique aerial photograph of TMI comes from President Carter’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island—whose report of the “accident” (i.e. your run-of-the-mill everyday partial core meltdown) is housed at the National Archives and Records Administration (mirror). I bet Metropolitan Edison, the operator of TMI back then, didn’t send out free calendars.

Suburbia: The Unspeakable Peril in the Everyday

All this thinking about the dangers of suburbia reminds me of a passage from Joan Didion’s great 1970 novel Play It As It Lays. Maria Wyeth, the washed-up, strung-out actress in the novel exists in a near catatonic state.

For days during the rain she did not speak out loud or read a newspaper. She could not read newspapers because certain stories leapt at her from the page: the four-year-olds in the abandoned refrigerator, the tea party with Purex, the infant in the driveway, rattlesnake in the playpen, the peril, unspeakable peril, in the everyday. (Play It As It Lays, pp. 99-100)

This peril in the everyday is the ghost anxiety that haunts many of the signs in my subdivision. Notice in how many of them children are at risk.

Because her own child is somehow brain damaged — and she aborts another fetus — Maria keys into this societal fear of children at risk. But she (ironically, considering her decidedly non-nurturing lifestyle) localizes the fear as a mother’s concern for her child, thereby depoliticizing what I see as a symptom of larger social anxieties:

She grew faint as the processions swept before her, the children alive when last scolded, dead when next seen, the children in the locked car burning, the little faces, helpless screams. The mothers were always reported to be under sedation. In the whole world there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril. (Play It As It Lays, p. 100)

Instantaneous peril, or at least the imagined threat of instantaneous peril, what role does it play in our lives? In our decision-making? In our policies and politics, both locally, here in my own subdivision, and nationally, in an America where our greatest living enemy is supposedly some intangible capital-T Terror?