Television and cinema have slighted the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but fiction has virtually ignored them—at least explicitly. There are reasons for this, of course, including moral ambivalence. “Evil has no place, it seems, in our national mythology,” asserts Tim O’Brien, author of the novel The Nuclear Age.
Another factor is the technological nature of the atomic attacks. The bombing of Japan may have been efficient but it was hardly stirring; it involved only a small group of airmen, not vast armies; and it was uncomfortably one-sided.
Still, it can be said that Hiroshima is everywhere in postwar and contemporary fiction—in its themes of futurelessness and absurdity, and its predilection for violent or vengeful behavior by heroes and anti-heroes alike. The critic Peter Schwenger has observed that the “usual place” for Hiroshima in Western literature is “the unconscious.”
What happened to Hiroshima may be impossible to even imagine, let alone render. (One recalls Whitman’s comment on the Civil War: “The real war will never get into the books.”) Of the few published novels, most focus on guilt-torn scientists at Los Alamos: Pearl Buck’s Command the Morning, for example, or Dexter Masters’s The Secret and Bradford Morrow’s Trinity Fields. They do not portray the decision-makers, the bomber pilots or the Japanese victims. Michael Knight’s recent novel The Typist focuses on a clerk for Gen. MacArthur in postwar Tokyo who winds up in Hiroshima at a football game arranged for U.S. soldiers and dubbed The Atom Bowl (this actually happened, but in Nagasaki).
In fact, most novels related to the bombing rest comfortably in the niche of science-fiction. Then there are loosely connected classics such as On the Beach, Fiskadoro, Riddley Walker and more.
If there are any serious novels exploring the decision to drop the bomb, or the Enola Gay’s mission to Hiroshima, no bibliographer has yet uncovered them. As early as 1946, Mary McCarthy was calling Hiroshima “a hole in human history.” It all fit in with the official suppression of images and evidence from the atomic cities (as I probe in my new book, Atomic Cover-up).
William Faulkner famously observed in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech that novelists now labored “under a curse,” distracted by the question of, “When will I be blown up?”
Among those who called for writers to address the issue, Alfred Kazin wrote: “I don’t care for novelists who ignore what H.G. Wells himself called the ‘queerness’ that has come into contemporary life since the bomb.” Kazin scored the “imness,” “flatness” and “paltriness” of many reputable novelists, calling them “ways of escape” from the nuclear reality.