about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Irradiated Cities
A Review of Irradiated Cities
by Mariko Nagai

Spencer Dew

“[D]estruction is abstract as long as there are no pictures, as long as there are no testimonies” writes Mariko Nagai in this terrifying book of photographs and text on the legacy of nuclear weapons and nuclear power in Japan. Sections engage the bombing of Hiroshima, the bombing of Nagasaki, fallout and radiation in Tokyo, the meltdown in Fukushima. In each instance, the images slant away from documentary—edging toward, indeed, the abstract. Likewise, the text, in waves of fragments stitched together by colons and the & sign, offers glimpses but not testimony. This is a book that plays with both words and silence, a barrage of descriptions and (especially in reference to the most recent disaster, Fukushima) denials, paired with black and white images that look to the side, the ground, showing us shadows at a memorial, a tree trunk’s Bomb-scarred bark, tissue samples in their jars.

In stark monochrome, these images convey traces of the technology they represent, a sense of sterility and chemical stain. Dread is evoked in something as seemingly benign as a train ticket. We see an unreadable printout from a diagnostic device, a shockingly blood-splattered doctor’s coat, but we do not see wounds or the wounded; that, here, is the role of text. We are told that “a man claws at the straw mat, leaving four deep scars & jerks in pain in his small hut he calls home, while his children watch in the corner, holding their breaths, & a photographer hesitates & the man yells, photograph me, photograph what the bomb did to me!” A stance of this book is that such a photograph, while fetishized in the fields of history and jurisprudence, can never really represent experience. The evidentiary image is not the image that communicates truth. How, indeed, to capture, in a photograph, the effect of the Bomb, in time (“one second, people are there : the next second, they are gone : one second, a man walks on a bridge : the next second, he is a shadow left behind in the moment of his next step : one second, a woman walks with parasol in her hand, her dress white with small flowers : the next second, the flowers press against her skin, her back becomes the field of flowers ...”) or in space (“a student remembers sitting in the classroom one moment, & coming back to consciousness in the schoolyard, having travelled through the air while she blacked out : I’m so thirsty, please, water, water”)? Even the aftereffects have something of their force removed from them when reduced to images. Time-lapse photos would fail to capture the shock, the incomprehensibility, of seemingly unwounded bodies

erupting from within : specks as small as pinheads & as large as peas appear all over his body, swelling more with each hour : these purplish bruises float to the surface of the skin & stay, like floating leaves : with each & every day many patients like him arrive, whose bodies are without wounds but slowly change into canvasses of specks : he has lost so much of his hair already : his eyelids are covered with bleeding specks : the inside of his mouth rots : he died twenty-one days after the bomb : his family, if they hadn’t seen this metamorphosis, this decay, would not have recognized him.

Human suffering is central here, but more unsettling is how inflicting such catastrophe can be rationalized, ignored, fictionalized, denied. Nuclear power is only one form of deadly power under examination in this book, which looks, too, at power and power imbalance on global and local levels, from the capitalist interests in locating a power plant in a certain, cash-thirsty town to the nationalist interests that see in irradiated rocks a potential leveling force. We are made to see “power” as something invisible, taken-for-granted and recklessly consumed, with even those citizens who organize for anti-nuclear protests doing so via text messages sent using electricity, dependent upon and addicted to a vast grid of infrastructure. Finally, Nagai confronts the various powers which control or silence or otherwise shape narratives, from censorship to the equally-obfuscating platitude of “never again,” but also the sort of writing so artfully eschewed here, where words lessen the impact and afterlife of these human-designed, human-orchestrated horrors. This is an urgent book, one that will leave readers deeply—and needfully—unsettled.

Official Mariko Nagai Web Site
Official Les Figues Press Web Site

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