Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

Niall Harrison has posted links to reviews of the novels shortlisted for the Clarke Award this year, and I looked at it and thought, "Didn't I review Oh Pure and Radiant Heart somewhere other than in the best-of-the-year article for Locus Online?" And then I realized that, indeed, I had, but that the review was not available online, having been published in the print edition of Locus. Here, then, for the sake of completism (or something) is that review:

Lydia Millet builds her fourth novel from a simple extrapolation: What would happen if J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, three of the designers and developers of the atomic bomb, were to find themselves transported from 1945 to the beginning of the twenty-first century?

Millet fully explores this premise while balancing humor and horror, fantasy and reality, history and imagination in a book that is compulsively readable, but also thought-provoking and even disturbing. While the central plot of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is ragged and picaresque, it is fueled by quiet moments, telling details, longings and dreams. Caricatures seem to live in every corner of the novel's landscape, but there are characters here, too, amidst the chaos of a world that, to the timeslipped physicists, comes to feel like a slow-burning apocalypse of vulgar language and dead reason.

The most appealing character is the central one, Ann, a reference librarian who is the first to discover Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard, and to invite them into her home, where her gardener husband , Ben, tolerates as much as he can, until the scientists take them to Hiroshima in search of meaning and logic in the history of all the destructions unleashed by equations that had once seemed so promising. But the twenty-first century is not a century of meaning and logic, and so a pothead millionaire scoops up the ragtag team and lets them fill the hole left when Jerry Garcia's particles were accelerated into the great concert in the sky. Before anybody knows quite how it happened, Ann and Ben and the atomic trinity have a gaggle of groupies to follow them to the Marshall Islands and the deserts of Nevada. Ann thinks she's on a highway to a meaningful life, but Ben remains skeptical of everything, and watches helplessly as his marriage is sacrificed to a circus of lost souls.

The second half of the book turns the circus into a cult, with Christian fundamentalists branding Oppenheimer as a new messiah, blithely ignoring that he claims to be a Jewish physicist who likes fine bourbon and Eastern philosophers. Meanwhile, Fermi seeks peace in a mental institution, and Szilard takes the group toward Washington, D.C., where he hopes a demonstration of logic will convince the world to get rid of its nuclear stockpiles. The fundamentalists are more interested in Rapture than peace, and by the time the scientists realize that their faith in reason is dwarfed by their followers' faith in eternal paradise, it is, once again, too late.

Throughout the novel, the ever-more-absurd events are told in counterpoint with bits of information apparently meant to remind us that while the fiction may be fun and games, the reality is not. In the first third of the book, the information is about the real scientists, the ones who were not skipped ahead half a century. The rest of the book gives us fragments of the history and consequences of nuclear proliferation, sometimes in paragraphs, and sometimes just a sentence or two, a pause to pop the balloons of our amusement: "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."

It is rare that such a collage of modes and tones works as well as it does in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. While the main narrative unifies the disparate elements, every few pages we seem to switch to a different kind of book: domestic dramas metamorphose into absurdist epics, science fiction becomes fantasy, meditative nature scenes give way to moments that seem ripped from a political thriller. Remarkably, this jumping around is seldom jarring, because Millet has a firm control of tone and structure, and so the disparate pieces harmonize, and it is a pleasure to follow Ann, Ben, and the physicists through all their mishaps. Some of the pleasures lessen in the last third of the novel, because the loose ends must be tied up and resolution brought to bear on it all, so some scenes feel included simply to move everything from point X to point Y. The final chapter redeems it all, though, because where many writers would let the last pages slip toward desperate polemic, or would create a finish that was thin and tidy, Millet takes us away from the explosions and gunplay, adding complexity, emotion, and mystery in final pages that are both satisfying and unsettling.

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