15 September 2005

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

Describing Lydia Millet's new novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, is quite a challenge, and since I just finished reading it moments ago, I'm tempted to do all sorts of bad reviewerly things like compare it to various other writers ("It's Matt Ruff meets Pynchon in a bar with Sven Lindqvist and--") or use empty words like brilliant and stunning and tour de force. (Except I've got a few reservations about the last third or so. Minor ones.)

I do plan on writing at length about it, but it's a meaty book and deserves some careful thought. For now, let me just say that it's the story of what happens when J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi are suddenly and inexplicably transported from July 16, 1945 to the beginning of the twenty-first century (without their old selves being wiped out -- they are, for instance, able to read biographies of themselves and discover what they did after 1945). It begins as a kind of domestic comedy-drama revolving around the life of the woman who first discovers the scientists and then takes them in to live with her and her (reluctant and skeptical) husband. Soon, though, the book becomes a picaresque satire of politics and religion, with the scientists traveling to Hiroshima and the Marshall Islands, then from Nevada to Washington, D.C., accumulating a following of New Agers, ex-Deadheads, and religious fundamentalists, until the fundamentalists take over and the book becomes a sort of conspiratorial thriller, then ends as a transcendental meditation. All the while, the story is interspersed with reminders that though it may be a great lark, there is a disturbing reality beneath the fantasies -- every few pages, we get passages such as the following:
It has been estimated that fallout from American atmospheric testing between 1945 and 1963 has caused or will cause fatal cancers in between seventy thousand and eight hundred thousand people in the U.S. and around the world. Soviet testing likely has yielded a similar number.
Thus, behind all the amusement is the nagging presence of mass death. It is as if Millet has decided to revel in many of the ridiculous elements of American culture while also reminding us of what that ridiculousness hides.

Remarkably, though, the book did not seem shrill to me -- the characters, even when they are caricatures, are so well drawn, their situations so often complex, that it becomes impossible to reduce any of the events in the book to a slogan. The dialogue is extremely skillful, Millet's eye for detail is among the best I've encountered in a contemporary writer, and few of the scenes ever feel sentimental or forced.

Here are some links to other information about the book and the author: