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Oh Pure and Radiant Heart

by Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet’s new novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, accurately sees the American invention of the atomic bomb as an unparalleled moment in the history of the human species and the planet. The opening page compellingly asserts that “when a speck of dust acquires the power to engulf the world in fire, suddenly, then, all bets are off.”

This intelligent and indicting novel takes a few gambles itself, primarily with its central conceit. The leading Manhattan Project scientists Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi somehow time-travel from the day of the Trinity test (the first successful A-bomb test) in 1945 to present-day America. This 60-year acceleration finds them doubly alienated from a soulless culture dwarfed by the nuclear shadow that they created.

Befriended and supported first by Ann, a shy American librarian, and Ben, her skeptical husband, and then by a pothead Japanese multimillionaire, the trio of transplanted scientists launches a disarmament campaign that draws threats from men in cheap suits with dubious badges and Christian fundamentalists. The many narrative opportunities offered by the central time-travel conceit quickly and definitively overcome the challenge of its believability, as these brilliant men catch up to 21st-century life, discovering obesity and obscenities, the ubiquity of soda pop and plastic, and a government split between religious hypocrisy and a suicidal arms program.

Millet – who won the 2003 PEN-USA Award for Fiction and is justly adored for the scathing satire of her George Bush, Dark Prince of Love – finds in this U-shaped narrative timeline (with its obvious insistence on cause and effect) occasion to revisit a turning point in the evolution of the species, and a rare chance to parade sociopolitical data (facts on warfare and nuclear weaponry appear every few pages) within a human story.

Housing the physically and spiritually homeless scientists with the childless professional couple Ann and Ben affords Millet a crucial opportunity to investigate the various disasters inherent in nuclear war through an evolving portrait of a couple who have silently experienced a slide from romance to routine. Because of Millet’s steadily beautiful and intelligent prose, this narrative frame does more than simply allow the scientists to acclimatize to contemporary life. Millet has attempted nothing short of an inquiry into the personal and communal soul. And she succeeds.

This combination of domestic, historical-scientific, and political narratives elevates the personal to the political while simultaneously manufacturing that most elusive and demanding of literature’s Trojan horses – the politically motivating and entertaining story. The national and international travels of these resurrected or politically resigned characters allow Millet to calmly retail facts about the hundreds of tons of depleted uranium left in Iraq by the first Gulf War, or about the 17,000 pounds of plutonium-239 that have been released into the ground and atmosphere since the 1945 Trinity test. “The deadliest substance known to man,” plutonium-239 is so lethal that a single pound of it can induce lung cancer in billions of people.

However terrifying, bald facts are not the explosive fuel that pushes one through this attentive and engaging novel. Authorial mind and eye regularly coalesce as Millet evokes our mad, mad world with a mix of satire, lyricism, humour, and grace. The heights and depths of emotional and intellectual life balance here between peace marches on Washington and those on the bedroom carpet. Millet catches the “deceptive humility” in the phrase “I love you,” a humility that “seems to privilege ‘you’ over ‘I’.” True to both history and entertainment, her Oppenheimer is similarly wise and perceptive, seeing, now, the proximity of love and suffering and the distance between life and atomic death.

Despite a conspiracy plot that advances too sporadically and a cult plot that advances too slowly, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart meets the diverse challenges of a novel, offering rewarding characters ruddy with life, accurate and wise language, and insights both emotional and intellectual. A rewarding and important novel