Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2005. 532 pp)

Lydia Millet has a master’s in environmental policy from Duke University. Her 2002 novel, My Happy Life, won the PEN-USA Award. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

In Appreciation of Beauty

Radiohead introduced the computer age with the masterpiece of a record, OK Computer. It balanced pop accessibility with complicated song structures and intricate production. The hit single, “Karma Police” defines everything about this record. It starts off as a beautiful, artistic piece of music; it strategically ends with the music falling apart. The point being, our identity becomes unhinged the more we let the computer run our lives. If we let, we might spiral out of control.

The same feeling applies with Oh Pure and Radiant Heart.

Manhattan Project and Beyond

Lydia Millet’s novel imagines a world in which three critical scientists in the Manhattan ProjectLeo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer — time travel into the 2000s immediately after the first nuclear bomb test — called Trinity. The details are a bit sketchy, in fact even odd. The scientists, once they realize what has happened, begin researching their own stories, learning of the lives they lived after World War II, the children they had, the cause of their deaths.

And yet here they are, in modern-day Santa Fe, New Mexico.

With a vivid dream of Oppenheimer as the source of her searching, a reference librarian, Ann, seeks the scientists out and provides shelter for them along with her husband, Ben.

As the scientists pursue answers to the mystery of their appearance, they begin to believe their purpose resides in descrying their actions that led to the horrific blossoming of nuclear weaponry worldwide.

With the help of Ann and Ben, the scientists begin a worldwide peace mission, gaining many followers, including some radical Christians who consider Oppenheimer the risen messiah.

As the movement gets out of hand, tensions arise when the use of force almost seems more likely to yield results than remaining true to their pacifist convictions.

Downhill from There

Even though Oh Pure and Radiant Heart entertained throughout, the narrative moves from dense, poetic prose to descriptive narration, falling apart a little like Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”

The book begins with the pinnacle of poetic writing:

“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” (3).

Seemingly, Willet uses her narrative to pry deeply into the psyche of humanity. We are capable of so much love and so much hate. She ponders:

“That was it: if the world gave us our souls, why were the souls so impoverished? Most of them were so thin you could see right through them” (293).

Why do we tend toward evil? What about us leads the brightest among us to create a weapon of mass destruction? And can we every change?

I appreciate these questions and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart was worth reading, but I can’t help but feeling that the book experienced a rocky landing. For as much as I enjoyed Millet’s artistry at the beginning of the book, I struggled with her equipoise as she tried to wrap everything up.

Nevertheless, I recommend Oh Pure and Radiant Heart.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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