Monday, 7 December 2009

Oh Pure & Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

I know nothing about nuclear weapons or 1940s scientists, so I approached this book seeking an education. I was going to write “and boy, did I get one” here, but that would be so cringeworthy, I might as well sign up for the fucking Terry Wogan Appreciation Society.

Lydia Millet. Her novel opens with our homey protagonists, Ann and Ben. Ann is a librarian who thinks deep things about her boring life and is far too clever to work as a sheepish librarian. Ben is a put-upon gardener working for a Stepford wife and a unilingual Japanese designer. He too thinks deep things about life, but less frequently than his spouse.

Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard were the engineering figureheads of the Manhattan Project: the folks that brought you that most wonderful of inventions: the atomic bomb! When the bomb is dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, the trio are transported forward in time to where Ann and Ben live. This is never explained, but these details add to the novel’s barmy charm.

Through some contrivance or other, Ann bumps into the scientists and invites them to live in her house. Nothing happens much at first other than smoking and talking and reading. More deep thoughts about life. Then later on, Oppenheimer meets a slacker multi-billionaire named Larry (the Big Lebowski with money) and forms a cult around the scientists.

It then gets very
Life of Brian – militant Christians start to think Oppenheimer is the messiah, and involuntarily elect him as the spokesperson for God on Earth.

Hmm. So that’s it. I can’t quite articulate just how I feel about the novel, other than to say: I liked it.

Millet breaks her almost 500-page epic into mini-chapters, including informative and opinionated asides on nuclear weapons, their damage, and the idiots who use them (this section is the most Vonnegutian). The characterisations are strong (if somewhat caricatured in places) and her prose is intelligent, scintillating and flecked with beautiful moments.

At other times, the prose is tedious, especially when she indulges in one too many of Ann’s deep thoughts about life, or when she loses sight of her protagonists in the third act, when we are dropped into the mad cult and left to fend for ourselves. Patient readers should be prepared to wait for the quite astonishing climax, however. No spoilers.

Apart from this, this is a fable and a satire stitched together. A fatire? A sable? Yes. One of those. I will be reading Millet again on the strength of this piece of work: an admirable attempt to combine socio-political comment with postmodern prankery and stylishly hewn prose.

Yes. Recommended and such.


  1. This sounds good!! Question: how technical does it get? Anything too technical goes way above my head normally and I tend to avoid books like that, but if the technical stuff is little and (not too) often, then I'll definitely keep my eye out for it :)

  2. Not technical at all. You don't need to be interested in the nuclear debate to enjoy the book. You just have to be patient. Oh so patient. :)

  3. Excellent! I will add this to my list of books to read then :) (Will have to work on my patience though methinks).