Tuesday, July 14, 2015
July 14, 2015: Trinity Sites and Texts: Historical Novels
[On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested at Trinity Site, New Mexico, an explosion with numerous aftereffects and meanings. This week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such Trinity connections, leading up to a special weekend post on a foreign film that’s also profoundly American.]
What two very different historical novels help us see about the Trinity project.
In yesterday’s post, I highlighted the complicated, crucial role that the Trinity site plays in the closing pages of Leslie Marmon Silko’s postmodern, Native American, unique and amazing historical novel Ceremony (1977). Silko does more with her Trinity section than highlight the stolen tribal holy lands on which the test site was located, however (vital of a task as that undoubtedly is). At the climax of her description of the Trinity site and what it helps her protagonist Tayo see and understand for the first time, Silko writes with eloquence and anger about the ironic but unquestionable way that the atomic bomb had brought the world closer together and back to a more primal truth: “From that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers had planned for all of them, for all living things; united by a circle of death that devoured people in cities twelve thousand miles away, victims who had never known these mesas, who had never seen the delicate colors of the rocks which boiled up their slaughter.”
In this passage, as in so many moments and elements in Ceremony, Silko makes plain that her novel is anything but limited to Native American themes or histories (central to it as they certainly are). Like Tayo here, Silko recognizes the fundamental, crucial connections between seemingly distant and divided people and places, stories and communities, identities and histories. In ushering in the atomic age and the Cold War, Trinity exemplified some of the most threatening and destructive such connections, the ways in which we humans can bring the destroyers’ planned fate (whether with bombs, cultural and economic exploitations, or in so many other ways) to other cultures near and far (as well, of course, as to our own communities and the planet on which we all live). Yet at the same time, Tayo and Silko acknowledge through the repetition of “united” here, moments and histories like Trinity allow us to consider what we all share, to see the possibilities for communal human experience that are not limited to particular cultural or national borders and boundaries (since the bomb, like the rocks out of which its uranium came, knows and cares nothing about such divisions).
Acknowledging and engaging with such connections isn’t easy, however, nor is it necessarily entertaining (a word that has likely never been applied to Silko’s dense and demanding first novel). In order to create a much more entertaining genre fiction in his own first novel, the historical mystery/thriller Los Alamos (1997), author Joseph Kanon elides many of those social, cultural, and human questions in service of a compelling but ultimately slight plot. Kanon’s novel is set in the months leading up to the Trinity test, and even includes a description of that event; but as Lawrence Thornton writes in his New York Times review of the book, Kanon “has carefully subordinated his more serious intentions, as well as the inherent complexity of his material, to the demands of nonstop action.” As I hope has been made amply clear in this space, I have nothing whatsoever against genre or popular fiction; but in writing more of a period novel than a truly historical one, Kanon both misses that chance for greater complexity and offers a far more neatly resolved engagement with the dark and disturbing histories comprised by Los Alamos and Trinity.
Next Trinity connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?