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Oh Pure and Radiant Heart

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart

by Lydia Millet

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Acclaimed author Lydia Millet's latest novel is a black-comic tour de force depicting atomic bomb creators Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard. Despite being dead, these scientists are spotted in Santa Fe by a shy librarian named Ann. She becomes convinced they are real and, to the dismay of her husband, devotes herself to them. The trio quickly acquire


Acclaimed author Lydia Millet's latest novel is a black-comic tour de force depicting atomic bomb creators Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard. Despite being dead, these scientists are spotted in Santa Fe by a shy librarian named Ann. She becomes convinced they are real and, to the dismay of her husband, devotes herself to them. The trio quickly acquire a sugar daddy — a young pothead millionaire from Tokyo — and a vast cult following of hippies, Christians, New Agers, bikers, A-bomb survivors, and curious anthropologists who join them on an RV pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. Heroes to some, lunatics or con artists to others, the scientists finally become messianic religious figureheads to fanatics who believe Oppenheimer is the Second Coming. This imaginative novel, rich with incident, brilliantly marries their journey to a history of atomic and thermonuclear weapons and to the emotionally intimate tale of a middle-class couple trying to stay hopeful about the future as they grow close to the men who gave birth to the nuclear threat.

Editorial Reviews

Susannah Meadows
It's a wonder the novel itself doesn't explode, but Millet's confident writing holds the center. And to be fair, she warns us at the start what we're in for: ''In the moment when a speck of dust acquires the power to engulf the world in fire, suddenly, then, all bets are off. Suddenly then there is no idea that cannot be entertained.'' She makes a good point.
— THe New York Times
The New Yorker
In Millet’s surreal fifth novel, three physicists—Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard—are transported from their posts during the Second World War to the year 2003. After overcoming the usual time-travel quandaries—shock at children shouting expletives, unfamiliarity with power steering—the trio, being geniuses, quickly adapt. Szilard starts quoting rap lyrics. In penitence for their contributions to the creation of the atomic bomb, they set off on a mission to promote world peace, only to have their message hijacked by religious fanatics who believe that Oppenheimer is a herald of the Second Coming. The scientists want to stop nuclear proliferation, but it’s the proliferation of stereotypes—relentlessly chipper New Agers, soulless Wall Street executives, militant evangelicals—that sabotages the author’s attempt at lyrical transcendence.
Sheri Holman
… for all its zaniness, this book is a serious indictment -- not so much of the pothead zealots and religious End-Timers (they, at least, have embraced their own idiosyncratic raptures) but of Ann, Millet's perpetually sleepy and dreaming protagonist. Describing her girlhood reluctance to leave her warm bed and set foot upon a cold floor, she tells her husband, "There was this static feeling right then, this feeling of being frozen . . . torn between doing something and doing nothing. . . . I didn't recognize it back then but now I see what it was. . . . It was how I was going to spend the rest of my life." If the Anns of the world remain paralyzed, Millet seems to argue, agents of darkness will make their decisions for them.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
What if Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, the primary physicists from the Manhattan Project, returned to contemporary America to survey their atomic legacy? That question forms the heart of Millet's excellent fourth novel, in which the souls of the three take earthly form in the present-day Southwest. Ann, a New Mexico librarian, spots the reincarnated Oppenheimer and Fermi at a restaurant near her home; Szilard soon joins them; Ann persuades her garden-designer husband, Ben, to take them all in. Subsequent trips to Los Alamos and (with the help of a rich UFOlogist) Japan to view the monuments at Hiroshima persuade the three to work for disarmament. Army surveillance ensues; at one rally, shots are fired; and Christian Fundamentalists try to take things in a more rapturous direction. It takes considerable talent to pull off a conceit like this, and for the most part Millet makes it look easy, drawing full-blown, dead-on portraits of the three scientists that don't diminish their characters or their work. Her threads on weapons buildup, the topsy-turvy mosaic of contemporary American political culture and the difficulties of marriage feel realistically motivated and nicely argued. Millet gives a whimsical conceit real depth, and the result, if a bit pious in spots, is a superb, memorable novel. (July) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Enrico Fermi died in 1954. Leo Szilard died in 1964. Robert Oppenheimer died in 1967. Didn't they? It is Millet's (George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, 2000) happy conceit that they did, but, by some weird blip of the time-space continuum, they've come back to life and landed in northern New Mexico. These three men, writes Millet in a characteristically poetic turn, made possible "the moment when a speck of dust acquires the power to engulf the world in fire." All are a little put off by the contours the world has taken since they shuffled off the mortal coil; as Oppenheimer grumbles, "In my day there was ignorance too: ignorance is timeless. But at least we were ashamed of it." Tooling around Los Alamos, Santa Fe and neighboring burgs in cheap sunglasses and borrowed rides, the three are eventually found out, one by one, by a suitably retiring librarian, Ann, who is inclined to be maudlin, unlike her landscaper husband Ben, servant to the nouveaux riches of the high country. Ann meets Fermi and Oppenheimer in the produce aisle of the corner grocery, Oppenheimer wielding a Daikon radish that "resembled a club, and she thought blunt instrument." With Szilard in tow, the fissionable four set about trying to unmake the atomic era, wending their way across a landscape made ever so slightly ominous by the knowledge that the sky can fall at any minute. Along the way, the scientists have plenty of opportunities to ponder the mysteries of contemporary culture, especially when it develops that a whole lot of born-again Christians take it into their heads that the three are the Holy Trinity-think Trinity Site-and that Oppenheimer is "the risen messiah," to which Szilard sagely remarks, "People arefree to interpret our work as they choose. That is both their right and their privilege." Whatever it takes to put the genie back in the bottle, in other words. Lively, provocative fiction, graced by good writing and a refreshingly offbeat worldview.
From the Publisher


“Though Oh Pure and Radiant Heart possesses the nervy irreverence of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, Millet makes the subject matter her own, capturing the essence of these geniuses in a way that can only be described as, well, genius.”--Vanity Fair

"In her brilliant and fearless novel . . . Lydia Millet takes a headlong run at the subject of nuclear annihilation, weaving together black comedy, science, history, and time travel to produce, against stiff odds, a shattering and beautiful work. A-."--Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

Soft Skull Press, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.35(d)

Read an Excerpt

~ In the middle of the twentieth century three men were charged with the task of removing the tension between minute and vast things. It was their job to rend asunder the smallest unit of being known to be separable from itself; out of a particle so modest there are billions in a single tear, in a moment so brief it could not be perceived, they would make the finite infinite.

Two of the scientists were self-selected to split the atom. Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi had chosen long before to work on the matter, to follow in the footsteps of Marie Curie and her husband, who had discovered radioactivity.

The third man was a theoretical physicist who had considered the subject of the divisible atom among many others. He was a generalist, not a specialist. He did not select himself per se, but was chosen for the job by a soldier.

Thousands worked at the whims of these men. From Szilard they took the first idea, from Fermi the fuel, from Oppenheimer both the orders and the inspiration. They built the first atomic bomb with primitive tools, performing their calculations on the same slide rules schoolchildren were given. For complex sums they punched keys on adding machines. Their equipment was clumsy and dull, or so it would seem by the standards of their children. Only their minds were sharp. In three years they achieved a technological miracle.

Essentially they learned how to split the atom by chiseling secret runes onto rocks.

And it should be admitted, the concession must be gracefully made: in the moment when a speck of dust acquires the power to engulf the world in fire, suddenly, then, all bets are off.

Suddenly then there is no idea that cannot be entertained.

~ On a clear, cool spring night more than half a century after the invention of the atom bomb, a woman lying in her bed in the rich and leisured citadel of Santa Fe, New Mexico, had a dream.

This itself was not surprising.

To be precise it was less a dream than an idea in the struggle of waking up. She thought the dream as she began to rouse herself and she was left, after waking, with an urgency that had no answer. She was left salty and dry, trussed up in a sheet, the length of her a shudder of vague regret.

In the dream a man was kneeling in the desert.

The man was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Father of the Atom Bomb. The desert was an American desert: it was the New Mexico desert, and the site was named Trinity. Oppenheimer named it that. He gave lofty names to all his works, all except Fat Man and Little Boy.

These details would be revealed to her later. At the time nothing had a name but the man.

The man’s porkpie hat was tipped forward on his head and his pants were torn. His knobby knees were scratched and the abrasions were full of sand. She almost thought she could feel the sand against her own raw flesh, where the grains agitated. It may have been dust on the sheet beneath her, or, further removed, dust between the sheet and the mattress, a pea dreamed by a princess.

He was bent over abjectly, his face turned to the ground.

Then there was the flash, as bright as a thousand suns, which turned night into day. And on the horizon the fireball rose, spreading silently. In the spreading she felt peace, peace and what came before, as though the country beneath her, with its wide prairies, had been returned to the wild. She saw the cloud churning and growing, majestic and broad, and thought: No, not a mushroom, but a tree. A great and ancient tree, growing and sheltering us all.

The sight of it was poetry, the kind that turns men’s bones to dust before their hearts.

At this point in the scene she confused it with the Bible. The man named Oppenheimer saw what he had made, and it was beautiful. But when he looked at it, the light burned out his eyes and turned him blind.

She saw the rolling balls of the eyes when he righted himself to face the tree, and they were white like eggs.

~ Back then she knew nothing about Oppenheimer’s life: not who he was, not the identities of places, not the fact that the sand in the scrapes in his knees would have been the sand of the valley with the Spanish name Jornada del Muerto, Voyage of the Dead. There were infinite details she could not recognize, infinite details beyond her awareness in her own half-idea, in the deep blind territory of what is not known to be known but is known all the same.

Also there was what she knew without knowing why she knew it, for example the phrase brighter than a thousand suns. She recalled these words without a hint of where they came from or how they had fiist been imprinted on her memory. She did not know what “brighter than a thousand suns” would mean, how a brightness so bright could be outdone. The eye is not equal to even one sun, she thought. Straight, unwavering, bold, the eye cannot abide it.
A thousand suns? The eye could never adapt.
Or maybe once it is blinded the eye is transformed, she thought, and ceases to be an eye at all.
How much is learned unconsciously? It must be vast, she thought. We sweep through fields of knowledge and later all we can see is the dirt that clings to the hems of our clothes. Of course the scene itself, the dramatic idea that was not quite as unconscious as a dream, might have simply been a blurry cognitive rerun of any number of World War Two documentaries. It might have been a fragment from television, a black-and-white epic of scarred and pocked newsreels interspersed with propaganda footage from theNuremberg rallies. She might remember young boys marching in synchronicity and jutting out their arms in salute; further she might recall the chilling but majestic banners hanging long and thin and several stories high above the seemingly endless crowds, their spidery symbols rippling like water in the wind.
And over this she might recall the droning, authoritative voice of a British narrator.
Afterward she remembered the name. She could not forget the name, in fact, in the way a bad jingle overstays its welcome, tinny and insistent, lodged in the neural pathways of the brain. It was a famous name, or a name that had once been famous anyway, before she was born when her parents were young, when the Japs got what was coming to them, and later still when the drunkard McCarthy was hunting down Communists.
It was Oppenheimer, J. R.
Also the words The Father of the Atom Bomb.
A few days before, in waking life, she had seen the name at a small garage sale in a driveway, on the yellowing pages of a dog-eared copy of an old magazine from 1948, titled Physics Today. At the garage sale she had purchased a trivet, and the trivet had been sitting on this magazine when it caught her attention. She did not need a trivet, and in particular she did not need a porcelain trivet decorated with watercolor-style renderings of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But she felt a need to compensate the woman who was trying to sell it. The woman had a gentle gaze and a distracted manner and admittedly also a flipper for one arm.
Later, when she thought of the magazine cover, she also thought of printed words on the trivet: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
On the cover of the magazine was a picture: the porkpie hat perched on some pipes, possibly in a factory. Later she learned the porkpie hat had been a stand-in for Oppenheimer at the height of his fame. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the bombs had been dropped, the war was over and the Father of the Atom Bomb was a hero, the hat actually posed alone for photographs.
As an ambassador, the hat had a simple message. It said: I am worn by a gentleman.
It said: We are all gentlemen here.

© 2006, 2005 Lydia Millet
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

LYDIA MILLET is the author of several previous novels, including Everyone's Pretty and My Happy Life, which won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. She lives in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.

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