Novel: Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

This one’s been on my to-read shelf for a few years, and while I started it a couple times over that span, it never quite got its hooks into me. Now that I’ve finally read it through, I feel a bit foolish for having waited so long. Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005) isn’t just a good book, it’s an amazing one, an insightful, haunting, funny, and tragic story with politics, history, faith, science and time travel, among many, many other things. There is a lot going on in this one.

In 2003, three key scientists from the Manhattan Project (J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard) mysteriously awaken in the contemporary world, spirited forward in time as alternate versions of themselves, spawned at the moment of the first nuclear bomb test. Eventually they converge in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they become entangled in the lives of a young couple, Ann and Ben. They find themselves in the curious position of being able to research their own life stories, and — more importantly — the consequences of their world-changing work. Their studies put everything they know into a strange new context, and a harrowing new perspective.

It’s a slow-building novel that picks up speed and wins you over, as the trio first assimilates to their situation, and then — with the patient, often bemused help of their modern hosts — comes to learn all they can about the post-WWII era they’ve helped create, a sobering journey of discovery that moves them ultimately to action. But as their crusade to promote nuclear nonproliferation is appropriated first by na├»ve but well meaning peaceniks, and later by despicable religious whack jobs, it increasingly becomes clear that the times have changed on them, and their faith in the power of reason will be tested.

There is so, so much going on in this book, it’s kind of hard to know where to start. At times it feels like a quirky, amusing Jim Jarmusch film, at others like a madcap Monty Python scenario. It’s simultaneously science fiction and fantasy and mainstream and historical fiction. By turns it’s a biting satire, a sobering history lesson, a thoughtful character study, an angry political screed, a platonic romance…and I still don’t think I’ve covered it. But I think its most powerful aspect is the intriguingly depicted culture shock central to the scientists’ situation. These are three remarkable men, whose legends were made during truly trying and historic times, and casting their old-fashioned natures and reasoning and values against a vastly incongruous post-9/11 backdrop proves at once enlightening, hilarious, and disturbing. Millet does a fantastic job bringing these three famous figures to life — Szilard’s child-like pretentious can-do attitude, Oppenheimer’s stately reason and charm, and Fermi’s haunted thoughtfulness — while Ann and Ben serve as sympathetic and realistic modern viewpoint characters, searching for meaning in the wake of their unexpected and bizarre circumstances.

It took some work for me to get started on this one, and there are moments — particularly in the third section, I think — where the pace bogged down a bit. I doubt it will be to everyone’s tastes, but for me, ultimately, it proved to be a highly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and rewarding read.

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