Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet rounds out my impromptu Women and Science Trilogy. (The other two books were Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances and Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else.) Someone somewhere has to get these three women on a panel discussion about science and literature. I’d go.
It was mandatory that I pick up Oh Pure and Radiant Heart immediately upon finishing Millet’s excellent How the Dead Dream. (With apologies to George W. Bush: I’ve read two Millets!) The cover blurb on the cover of my edition says, ” a brilliant, madcap, poetic, fact-spiked, and penetrating novel (think Twain, Vonnegut, Murakami, and DeLillo).” That’s pretty accurate. I’d also add Thomas Pynchon to the mix.
Oh Pure and radiant Heart begins with a great premise. Following the detonation of the first nuclear bomb in the desert of New Mexico, three of the leading physicists involved in the Manhattan Project (Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard) find themselves in modern Sante Fe befriended by a local librarian named Ann. Millet doesn’t explain how the men came to be there – they just are. Ann quickly comes to believe that the men are who they say they are. Her husband thinks that they are convincing but are either deeply deluded or are con men. Throughout the novel, people must choose whether to accept the scientists’ claim (or not) as an article of faith. The scientists themselves are not interested in sci-fi time-machine theories for their sudden appearance . As Szilard notes:
I like H.G. Wells as much as the next guy, but please. We are men of science.
Ann helps the scientists in their quest to discover the purpose for their appearance int he 21st century. The search leads the group to visit the Los Alamos and Nevada Test Site nuclear facilities, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and ultimately to Washington, D.C. The journey becomes increasingly as the novel progresses.
One of the things that Millet does exceedingly well in this novel is breathe life into the physicists by equipping them fully developed unique personalities. These are no mere cardboard cut-outs for the author to drape her themes from. Szilard is a self-important know it all who quickly adapts to our time, taking instantly to a laptops and cell phones. He even quotes rapper Ice Cube at one point. Enrico Fermi, on the other hand, is a bit of an Eeyore. He is hopelessly lost in our world, and guilt-ridden about his involvement in the Manhattan Project. Metaphysically adrift, Fermi laments:
I have lost confidence in the validity of my judgment. With science, he said, — one can explain everything except oneself.
It is Oppenheimer who steals the show. He is a dashing figure in European suits, French cigarettes, and a porkpie hat. And he is a genius. After watching the detonation of the bomb, Oppenheimer quotes from the Bhagavad Gita:
If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
I may be wrong, but I don’t know that scientists talk that way much anymore. For that matter, it would be interesting to find any government spokesperson quoting from an Eastern religious text. The novel notes that Oppenheimer also liked to give his projects lofty names. For example, he called the first atomic bomb test site “Trinity”.
Wait a minute, “Trinity”? And there are three scientists. Surely she doesn’t go there? Oh, yes she does. Religion and science are clearly central themes in the novel, but not necessarily in the way that one might think. It is science, after all, that is responsible for enabling men to become “destroyer of worlds”. Religion doesn’t get a pass either though. Eventually the scientists are joined by armed religious zealots that want to co-opt the time travelers’ message of peace for their own ends. The tension between science and religion is palpable in the book, and both have some answering to do.
Early in the novel, the scientists read their own (and each other’s) biographies, world history of the intervening years, and the latest in scientific developments. Coming to grips with their role in world history fuels their journey and drives them toward what they feel that they must do to make amends. However, the trio were under no disillusionment in the 1940′s that the bomb, if developed, would not be used.
Oppenheimer says: That a man, a group, or institution should want to employ a nuclear weapon, should desire its employement is difficult for a thoughtful person to credit, thought Oppenheimer. And yet weapons are full of desire, shaking with it, They are instruments for the expression of longing.
Millet tells us: One day, when Oppenheimer was on a boat full of world-renowned physicists, he was what would happen if the boat were to sink. “It wouldn’t do any permanent good,” he said.
Yet they persevered, if for no other reason than to beat the Nazis. Throughout the book, Millet also interjects snippets of the history of atomic weapon development. Clearly she did a remarkable amount of homework to write the book. If you’re not careful, as they used to say on Fat Albert, you might learn something before its done.
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is not a perfect novel, but I loved it anyway. Millet’s prose often made me stop cold in admiration. More than once an incredible sentence would redeem pages that seemed to be going nowhere. The first draft of this post contained about 10 more quotations from the book and was twice as long. Let’s just say that I am very enthusiastic about the book. Some may be put off by the length, and there are sections that drag here and there. If you don’t find the subject matter of interest, it may be a slog. That said, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is a novel that was almost tailor made for my enjoyment. I could go on and on. Pick it up if you are a like-minded reader.
Interesting Side Note: When I began writing this review, the NYT ran an interesting story about the phyicists in the current U.S. Congress. There are three of them. Freak-y.
Additional reading: If the subject of nuclear weapons is of interest to you, I highly recommend Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb. After reading Millet’s novel, I feel the need to pick up the Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, which also won the Pulitzer.
One more quote from the book: “Love of knowledge can draw on its credit indefinitely…In love and knowledge there are two ostensibly virtuous quantities, so love of knowledge is ironclad.”