History has immortalized American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer as the “father of the atomic bomb.” In the seven decades since the consummation of the Manhattan Project and the apocalypse wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, Oppenheimer has also become the inadvertent father to a profusion of artistic renderings, his life and labours inspiring works of theatre, opera, cinema, television, and literature. Our enduring fascination with the complicated man has partly to do with the discrepancies between his lead role in making the world’s first weapon of mass destruction and his stated ethics, which were grounded in pacifism, informed by his proximity to mid-century communist ideals, and manifested in his controversial campaign for sharing and transparency in scientific research.
Our fascination is also sustained by the sheer fact of Oppenheimer’s singular genius and complexity of character. Y: Oppenheimer, Horseman of Los Alamos, Aaron Tucker’s debut novel, emphasizes Oppenheimer as poetry votary, wanderer of the American Southwest, philandering family man, and, of course, troubled collaborator in history’s most paradigm-shifting military innovation. Yet what is most distinctive in Tucker’s fictionalized profile is the sense of Oppenheimer as an almost pathological introvert, a quality that, in concert with Tucker’s considerable gifts with language and observation, makes Y at once delicate, evocative, and inert.
In Y’s opening chapter, set mere months before the bombing of Japan, Oppenheimer, recovering from a high fever, pauses on horseback before re-entering Los Alamos after a palliative desert ride. He is already negotiating with his legacy – “cataloguing his life’s work,” seeking refuge in lines from George Herbert and the Bhagavad Gita, and reminding himself that the so-called Gadget is “the result of an unstoppable and unavoidable momentum that started long before him.”
An author of poetry and scholarly texts on the subjects of cinema and technology, Tucker is unusually primed to explore a character so profoundly invested in both science and art. Writing in an intimate third person, Tucker has lit upon a narrative tenor located precisely at the point where author’s and protagonist’s sensibilities appear to dovetail. Tucker adorns Oppenheimer’s consciousness with images that allude to weaponry with the utmost subtlety and collects the sort of sensual, incidental details that reveal a poet’s attention: the effect of certain altitudes on the cooking of potatoes, the way a rider synchs his respiration with that of his horse, the irony of pregnancies proliferating in a place where the instrument of so much death is being invented. Tucker’s Oppenheimer is never more than a moment away from citing some lines of verse; he not only thinks about poetry but thinks poetically, with landscape – which after poetry forms his most constant source of consolation – working its way into his metaphors (e.g., “the foothills of a challenge”).
Such rigorous mediation comes at a cost: in Tucker’s conception, Oppenheimer seldom seems attentive to the present. The way each new chapter slips back and forth in place and time can appear almost comically irrelevant. Y is a novel of solitudes; even in those rare chapters in which Oppenheimer is not alone, he is situated in the private realm of the past. He can barely get through a single exchange of dialogue or line of correspondence without retreating into memory. The man described in the novel as someone who “would expand when he was in a conversation, become as large as the room in the way that a soft bulb glows and settles over every person and thing” is nowhere to be found. It is only in the chapter in which Oppenheimer witnesses a test of the Gadget in all its unfathomable destruction that he is seen to be utterly fixed upon what’s transpiring before him. Tucker unleashes a rapturous, breathless description of the detonation, an experience that leaves Oppenheimer feeling eerily “complete.”
Yet some scenes are so deeply inhabited, sustained, and unresolved as to come alive with the power and provocation of fresh experience. This is the case regarding Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s fellow savant, kindred spirit, and, up to the time of her suicide, ardent lover. Tatlock is portrayed as a woman “run by the same murky logics and compulsions” who declines Oppenheimer’s proposal of marriage three times. Yet more than any other woman in his life, she seems to have truly recognized him and his myriad contradictions. Tatlock is Y’s most engaging character, not solely for her enigmatic or tragic qualities, but because she is the sole character to captivate Oppenheimer in the strictest sense: when they are together, talking, eating, making love, he seems unable to do anything but live in the thrall and discomfort of their shared moment.