Books: Rod Smith on "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart"

Categories: Book Review

The atomic bomb has multiple fathers, most of them long-dead. Nobel-winning fission whiz Enrico Fermi checked out in '54. Leo Szilard, the polymath who persuaded Einstein to sign a letter to FDR stressing the weapon's necessity, joined him a decade later--three years before cancer claimed charismatic Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer. Only Edward Teller made it past Y2K, handily avoiding major character status in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (Soft Skull Press). Lydia Millet's exhaustively researched fifth novel was a work in progress by the time the megaton man passed in 2003, and libel considerations loomed.

Not so for his three colleagues: Never one to let mundane reality stand in the way of a good yarn, Millet whisks the physicists forward from the exact moment of the first nuclear detonation on July 16, 1945 to the present day, 2003. Bewildered at first, and aghast at the world they helped create, Oppenheimer, Szilard, and Fermi convene in Los Alamos. It is there that librarian protagonist Ann discovers the trio and ends up harboring them, mostly against the wishes of her skeptical husband Ben. A trip to Japan wins the quixotic crew the financial and spiritual backing of rich, middle-aged stoner Larry. Soon, they're leading a swelling caravan to Washington, D.C.--as the government becomes increasingly interested in their activities.

The scientist's game of cultural catch-up is exhilarating: "I don't know about you, but I don't want to be a fossil," Szilard declares to Oppenheimer early on. "Not when I already have being dead to contend with...Bullshit dopeass gay-ass motherfucker." But it's Millet's encyclopedic command of nuclear fact and exploration of contemporary credulousness and denial that give the story critical mass. --Rod Smith


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