Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
By Lydia Millet.
Soft Skull Press, $25.
The image of a porkpie hat lingers the next morning, left over from a dream that Ann, a Santa Fe librarian, had on a restless night. That same night, in various places around the country, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi—the fathers of the atom bomb—are reincarnated, confused to find themselves among the living in the early 21st century. Ann spots Oppenheimer in a Santa Fe diner thanks to that porkpie hat, his distinguishing feature during the days when scientists were celebrities. The other two are eventually drawn to New Mexico, and Ann and her garden-designer husband, Ben, take in the three displaced geniuses, watching them adjust to the new world as much as they can.
The couple's home proves too small for the trio, and Ben and Ann agree to take them on a trip to Hiroshima, to witness the aftermath of their handiwork. After seeing the city, Szilard declares a mass movement for disarmament, and a wealthy believer agrees to bankroll the effort. It's a way for the three to repair the world, even if they're now just ghosts walking among their wreckage.
The spellbinding Heart is a credit to Millet as both a writer and a researcher. Each of the three deceased emerges as a true character: Oppenheimer is a shell-shocked chain-smoker, Szilard is an excitable crusader and Fermi is a depressed introvert. Ambition doesn't even begin to describe Millet's effort. At times, the story is almost '50s radio-show slapstick, with the three stooges bumbling through the world, bewildered by new automobiles and the sagging beltlines of male teenagers. At others, however, the trauma of war—or more specifically and calamitous, war policy—is drawn out and subtly vilified in beautiful prose. Oppenheimer ponders, after stubbing out yet another cigarette: "Governments offer solutions that assume only the worst about human nature: They fight back in anger, a flying outward, a panic of blame, as if the problems are always outside the subject."—Jonathan Messinger