Oh Pure and Radiant Heart — Lydia Millet

The nice people at Iambik Audiobooks were kind enough to give me a few books from their catalog recently, one of which is Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which I will review momentarily, but first I’m compelled to comment on Iambik itself. The company is a true indie, run by people who care very much about literature; they release audiobooks on mp3 from independent publishers in the U.S. and Canada. Their prices are more than reasonable — around five bucks a book, cheaper than iTunes or Audible. And, unlike many audiobook vendors, there’s no weird third-party software you have to download, no DRM, no password protected files. Just nice, high quality mp3s, tagged and ready to go. I was able to download the books in a few minutes, put them on my iPod, and begin listening. Good stuff.

The premise of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is this: three of the lead scientists of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi — those nice men who brought us the atom bomb — are somehow transported from 1945 (during the Trinity test) to the early 2000s, during the first term of George W. Bush. Their arrival coincides with a strange dream (or mystical vision) on the part of the book’s protagonist, a quiet, thoughtful librarian named Ann, who lives with her husband Ben, a gardener, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After a violent tragedy at Ann’s library, circumstance brings her together with the three scientists, whom she recognizes. Ann quickly comes to believe in the scientists in an almost spiritual sense. They give her life the meaning it has thus far lacked. Ben is far more skeptical, and one of the novel’s strengths, particularly in its first half, is watching the strain on the young couple’s marriage as Ann increasingly finds her identity wrapped up in the scientists’ mission. Even more problematic is her platonic relationship with Oppenheimer, who becomes both a father-figure to her as well as the object of her motherly protection. Ann, Ben, and Oppenheimer form the novel’s intellectual and philosophical core; Millet grants us repeated access into their first-person thoughts and feelings, which comprise many of the book’s most interesting obsessions — Ann mulls over the tension between the concrete world and the hopes of a metaphysical reality; Ben ponders how one might come to possess (or perhaps earn) a soul; Oppenheimer, through a somewhat guilty lens, observes a materialistic and intellectually degraded 21st century.

It’s this degradation that the scientists seek to redress, perhaps in part to atone for their own complicity in creating the future (or rather, this future). First, however, there’s a trip to Japan to see what their bombs did firsthand. In Tokyo the scientists are doubly alienated, not only by Japanese culture, but also by the intensity and futurity of hyperkinetic Tokyo. It’s here that they meet Larry, a 40-something surfer-bum/stoner/rich kid/lazy plot device, whose father has “more money than God.” It’s this money that funds the scientists throughout the rest of the novel. Larry comes to believe in them almost immediately, and becomes their chief financier (and manager of sorts) as they move on to the next episode, an overlong final-third back in America.

Despite Ben’s protests, the scientists, led by pushy, media-savvy Szilard, set out on a rambling tour of America, leading a campaign for world peace via nuclear disarmament. The conflict heightens between Szilard and Ben, natural foils, as Oppenheimer becomes increasingly abstracted from the physical world, and Fermi enters a mystical depression. As the scientists tour about on luxury RVs, meeting with media organizations and staging rallies, they begin to attract a strange cavalcade of hippies and dropouts, runaways and weirdos –and, significantly, a burgeoning group of End Times obsessed evangelical Christians. Szilard initially thinks he can control the swelling circus, but leadership soon falls into disarray. Complicating the matter are the private security forces the different contingents utilize. The irony that the peace movement is littered with men bearing guns is not lost on Oppenheimer. In the meantime, Ann feels increasingly marginalized and Ben continues to see their marriage dissolve (Ann seems abstractedly unaware). Ben does, however, make a meaningful and somewhat paternal relationship with sensitive Fermi, taking the man on hiking trips and otherwise shielding him from the craziness that Szilard openly embraces.

This final section of the novel is easily its weakest–Millet’s strength in the early parts of the book comes in her handling of the interior spaces of Oppenheimer, Ben, and Ann, as well as the mystical absurdity of the scientists’ transportation to the future. These concerns get muddied by too many characters and too many plots as the book reaches its climax; what should be a build to a thrilling end is instead something of a slog. Nevertheless, Millet (thankfully) pulls off that end in a dazzling, disturbing rally in Washington D.C. complete with riots and spiritual revelations of a sort.

While Millet’s conclusion is not my metaphysical cup of tea, it is an appropriate and organic resolution for the novel. Far more interesting, to me anyway, is Millet’s keen research about the development of the atom bomb and the (continued) proliferation of nuclear weapons. The novel is larded with frank, concise facts about America’s military-industrial complex that, when set against the narrative proper, create a highly ironic and coldly searing satire. The closest point of comparison I can think of here is J.G. Ballard, whose 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise Oh Pure and Radiant Heart often echoes. And while Millet’s satire is often funny, it’s the kind of funny that is cold and black when honestly reflected on — which her thoughtful characters often do. Ultimately, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is a deeply sad comedy, especially if we identify strongly with Ben and Ann, who in a wistful coda, continue to search for meaningful lives against the existential backdrop of a word that is, to use the novel’s language, “post-history.”