Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is an incredible, immersive experience. It is at once hopeful and also a dark, depressing journal of our national and and international potentially-fatal nuclear fascination.
Millet imagines the consequences and fallout of the sudden appearance of three nuclear scientists from the 1940s in 2004. Most of the novel is told through the eyes of Ann and Ben, a quiet and content couple from New Mexico. They have found places in the world, a library, gardens, to work and to love.
Ann is one of the first to recognize and then believe in the scientists, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi. Ben is less convinced but goes along with Ann as she gives the scientists a place to stay. She, as are most others, is most taken with Oppenheimer. A cult of personality forms around the scientists even as they try to get the government to acknowledge their existence and listen to their message of nuclear nonproliferation. Millet makes occasional swipes toward explaining the scientists’ reappearance, but for the most part they are taken as an unexplained natural phenomena which people interpret to fit their preconceived beliefs.
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is a dark, brilliant novel by an author not afraid to look into our hearts and see our best and the worst. If the end is inevitable and unsurprising it is also commentary on our times that make it so.