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.”

Books I Will (Make Every Reasonable Attempt to) Read in 2011

If you’re looking for a comprehensive “Books to Look Forward to in 2011” kind of list, The Millions has you covered. This post is not about books that are coming out in 2011, although some books mentioned here will come out in 2011. This post is really just about books I’d like to/plan to read in 2011 (it’s also kind of a dare to myself).

First up, I will finish the books I’m reading/listening to now. This means Adam Levin’s The Instructions (reading; McSweeney’s) and Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (listening; Iambik Audio). I’m on page 342 of The Instructions; there are 1030 pages; a calculator tells me that that is 33.2%. It’s easy reading, often entertaining, but it’s hard to see, even a third of the way in, how Levin can justify taking up this much space. Oh, what is it about? Okay, this kid Gurion Maccabee may or may not be the Messiah. In the meantime, he rules the special ed program at his suburban Chicago school, writes scripture, and gets in lots of fights. The best parts of the book (so far, anyway) are Gurion’s comments on Torah (I would’ve written “the Torah,” but this book seems to suggest that the definite article is pretty Gentile).

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart has been enjoyable, sardonic — funny but sad — and I’m coming up to the end soon. Basically, a trinity of scientists who helped invent the atom bomb (Robert Oppenheimer is the famous one) come back from the dead (sort of) to . . . I don’t know yet. It’s unclear. To hang out with a quiet librarian and her gardener husband as their marriage slowly dissolves? To lead our nation to world wide peace? To take part in a movable circus of weirdos and End Times prophets? Not sure. Full review forthcoming.

I already wrote about one of the Tintin collections I picked up late last year; I will read the other three collections (and likely hunt down more). I’ll also read (hopefully; that is, hopefully it will come out) the next installment in Charles Burns’s X’ed Out trilogy.

Also on the proverbial plate, non-illustratedwise, is Heinrich Böll’s The Clown, the story of a clown in post-Reich Germany who can smell through the phone (I think there’s more to it than that). Melville House is actually releasing several new editions of Böll’s novels this year, and they have a pretty excellent track record with the Germans, what with Hans Fallada and all, so hey, why not.

On the I-will-read-everything-Sam-Lipsyte-writes front, Picador is putting out a new edition of his first novel The Subject Steve (perhaps in concordance with The Ask coming out in paperback?). I will read The Subject Steve.

Books I bought this year and didn’t read but will make every reasonable attempt to read this year—

William Gaddis’s JR was, I think anyway, the last book I picked up in 2010. It’s really long, seems to be written entirely as a dialog, and hey, I read 2/3rds of The Recognitions and then didn’t even finish it (yet?) which is kinda remarkable/totally lazy. Maybe I should just finish The Recognitions. I just feel like “I get it already.” Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Loved the first chapter of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, even though it was really silly. Stay tuned, folks.

I read the first two stories in Barry Hannah’s Airships and then a few galleys bombed my doorstep and then I got distracted, but these things have Spring Break written all over them, so, yes, look for the Airships report in the future (or be a hipster douchebag and write in to tell me how awesome you already know Hannah is now that he’s dead blah blah blah).

I remember that I bought Renata Adler’s Speed Boat the same day I bought Airships (because, y’know, the titles). I read the first 30 or so pages and then read them again and then read them again a week or so ago. Kind of dumbfounding stuff. It’s been hovering around the coffee table, the nightstand; it’s been jammed in briefcases, wedged in coat pockets. What is it? What is she doing?

After slowing down my consumption in 2010, I’m ready to feed the addiction again in 2011: Bolaño, Bolaño, Bolaño. I need to read Amulet; I’ll also read The Insufferable Gaucho and probably something else.

And:

The Pale King

But everyone’s buzzing about that already, right?

Gordon Lish on Beckett’s Boils and Other Matters of Literary Import

Hey. Do yourself a favor and listen to Iambik’s first podcast, a raucous, rambling conversation with legendary editor/short story author Gordon Lish. I finally got around to listening to the discussion between Lish and his publisher John Oakes. (Why the delay? I’ve been listening to and very much enjoying another Iambik recording, an audiobook of Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and I needed to get to a decent stopping place before the Lish (review of the Millet forthcoming)) . I had already listened to Lish reading a selection of his own stories which was nine kinds of awesome (thanks again to the good folks at Iambik, whose hooking me up with the sweet mp3age has in no way affected my fondness for their operation (review of the Lish selections forthcoming)).

Hearing Lish in this conversational, easy manner is revelatory. Wise and funny, erudite and crafty, you’ll learn something and be entertained:

Iambikcast #1a (mp3)
Iambikcast #1b (mp3)

What does he talk about? I’ll crib from Iambikist Miette’s write-up, which hardly sums it up but does a nice job of surveying the discussion–

In the first part of the conversation, Lish covers Beckett’s boils and other afflictions of our literary heroes, remembrances of Neal Cassady, and the writer as witch doctor.

The second part focuses on Lish’s (as always, uncensored) assertions on the state of contemporary American letters, in which we’re imparted with opinions on Allen Ginsberg and Philip Roth, achieving religious experience through DeLillo, the finer points of book blurbing, and encouraging the further crimes of Tao Lin.