On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert, causing six kilograms of compressed plutonium to blow up in a fireball, in a blast felt by observers watching 20 miles away. The heat warmed their arms, and some experienced partial blindness for up to fifteen minutes, even though they had been watching through tinted glass. The explosion’s force was equivalent to the strength of twenty thousand tons of TNT. No one knew what to expect when the bomb went off — until this point, this godlike power of destruction had not yet been conferred to man. And what if the blast had somehow caused three of the physicists responsible for the bomb’s creation to be transported to the future, to present day? What would they think of the post-atomic reality they introduced?
And so begins Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard transplanted to 2003, an arrival hazily foretold in a dream. Ann, a smart, thoughtful though slightly melancholic librarian, lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her gardener husband Ben, and dreams one night of Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” as he witnesses the Trinity bomb explode. She awakes with an odd prescience that something is about to happen. And it does: a random gunman enters the library with a submachine gun and begins firing rounds; he keeps on until a bullet ricochets off a pipe and penetrates his skull. Ann emerges unscathed physically but mentally jarred, and shortly afterward begins her slightly surreal sightings of a middle-aged Oppenheimer and Fermi at various establishments around town, even though both are known to be over 40 years dead.
The plotline sounds hokey when giving a straight recap, but it doesn’t come off that way when reading it. The beauty of Millet’s sentences coupled with the recurring tableaus of atomic destruction — of bombs exploding and skin melting; of testing bombs within the continental US; of mutated fetuses, “hearts that beat slowly in shapeless bundles of tissue,” resulting from nuclear fallout–ground the story. The need to set aside the notion of impossibility is acknowledged from the beginning: “And it should be admitted, the concession must be gracefully made: in the moment when a speck of dust acquires the power to engulf the world in fire, suddenly, then, all bets are off. Suddenly then there is no idea that cannot be entertained.” Try to imagine New York City tomorrow, a ravaged, burnt-out shell of a city; it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities in our nuclear age. Of course, this is fiction, so the need for suspension of disbelief should already be presumed. But unlike J.K. Rowling and the fantastical realm of Harry Potter, Millet’s story deals very much with history and the world at hand.
It’s fascinating to consider what the human forces behind the bomb would think of their work now, 60 years after the Trinity Test and the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even though Leo Szilard helped launch the Manhattan Project and played a role in convincing the US government of the necessity to develop such a weapon, by the time the first atomic bomb was tested, he opposed its use in warfare and petitioned the government to show restraint. Oppenheimer and Fermi, unlike Szilard, remained with the project to the end and witnessed the Trinity Test in person. The consequences of their actions, the unforeseeable results–the nuclear arms race, the continued, increased testing of bombs, the mass carnage and destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — had yet to hit them, or perhaps had yet to register as a significant consideration beyond the immediate, the end of the war.
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart gives life to the three physicists — Oppenheimer, learned and refined, Fermi, quiet and pensive, Szilard, boisterous and curious — and portrays them as complex, thoughtful men, more than just the faceless names forever connected to the bomb. They reside at Ann and Ben’s house (they lack funds and Ann has taken an invested interest in their presence), and plan a trip to Japan to visit the sites of atomic destruction, thus setting off a journey that defines the remaining two-thirds of the novel. And this is where it spins out of control.
Funded by Larry, a Japanese trust-fund adult who looks and behaves like a perpetual 20-something even though he’s two decades older, and accompanied by Larry’s partying crew, the scientists take off on a mission to prove their identities and to confront the UN and urge global peace as the only sure way to guard against further use of nuclear arms. They travel to the test sites in the Marshall Islands, to the Trinity site, and then take off on a lengthy road trip around the United States, where they acquire such a following they nearly become immobilized. And then, as if everyone and their brother hasn’t already joined the massive caravan, the evangelical Christians begin deifying Oppenheimer and extolling his presence as proof of the Second Coming. The misguided Christian right hampers the scientists’ mission by turning it into their mission, and all the while the delicately intense novel degenerates into a chaotic expedition populated by the multifarious characters who swarm within it. Attention is drawn away from the core of the book, from the scientists and their mission, from Ann and Ben, their role in this protest and the burden it places on their relationship.
Millet attempts to cover too much ground and the novel suffers. In addition to tackling the profound and overwhelming subject of the atomic bomb, its development and impact on the postmodern world, she also attempts to take on celebrity, the human tendency to deify what cannot be understood, and the Christian right. It’s almost as if uncomfortable dwelling on the complex thoughts and detailed interaction of the three scientists, Ann, and Ben for too long, there’s a reactionary pan-out to a large, rowdy crew and their ensuing road trip to liven things up. And while a shake-up occurs, the novel turns from a lively one of ideas, character, and chance circumstance, to one propelled by action. The novel starts so beautifully, so adept in its ability to put forth ambitious ideas and traverse deep, difficult issues with energy and imagination, that the prattling, happenstance midsection is even harder to tolerate. A good reigning in (and a good proofreading for that matter — even the year of the scientists’ arrival switches from 2003 to 2004) would have served the novel well.
But regardless of the problems that persist, by far the most sustained and riveting voice is the echo from the past, the interspersed vision of destruction and the uncovered sins of the US government in the nuclear arms race, for the horrors are seemingly unreal. Oppenheimer on the hundredth anniversary of his birth makes a speech at the celebration Larry orchestrates, and remarks:
That was what shocked us most… That it does not shock you, that it does not stun you all and send you reeling with horror, this long death of civilization unrolling before your eyes.
A sense of hopelessness and inevitability resonates throughout the novel, as over and over again the campaign to restrain the use of nuclear weapons is thwarted, and usually for individual purposes and the pride of the powerful. The narrow width of human vision has taken the atomic bomb, intended as a safeguard against further war, and made it a status symbol of nations, a denotation of extreme power. It has become the most plausible means, far above greenhouse gases and global warming, of our own self-destruction. There are no whispered platitudes and false reassurances found here. Within this book of fiction lies a bleak reality almost too frightening to face.