It's the Bomb

Atomic blast from the past: An interview with Lydia Millet

Hell on earth arrived 60 years ago this week when the first atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site, New Mexico. In her new novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart Lydia Millet envisions three of "the gadget" 's principal architects—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi—unceremoniously transported from that moment in the desert to our current epoch of potty-mouthed children, rapacious consumerism, environmental holocaust, and fascistic tobacco regulations. (The chain-smoking Oppenheimer is reduced to scoping out ways to light up in jetliners and restaurants.) Millet tells the Voice that she thinks of the physicists as "modernists, without the stomach for postmodern irony or [the] willful cynicism, leading to nihilism, that has taken hold of American culture in waves, since the bomb and since Vietnam."

Millet sends her reincarnated trio, aided by a bong-burbling trust-fund surf bum, on a global tour for nuclear disarmament, but the inevitable media circus is soon hijacked by militant born-again Christians agitating for a rapturous Armageddon led by the second coming of Oppenheimer, who, they insist, "unlocked the pit of Hades!" However, Millet says, "The real Oppenheimer wasn't quite the drama queen my Oppenheimer is. He spoke out [for arms control] but he always did so in a way that we'd consider fairly esoteric and restrained." Unrestrained herself, Millet later adds, "The literary fiction machine in this country . . . seems to have a horror of overstepping itself. Perish the thought we should be as fantastic or monstrous or panoramic as movies or TV!"

Indeed, as if toggling between HBO and the History Channel, Millet's extravagant narrative is regularly interrupted by deadpan segments on the hideous, biblically proportioned power of thermonuclear weapons: "Seabirds standing on the beach when the ground rose beneath them had their legs driven upwards into their bodies, and the eyes of sea otters and seals exploded out of their skulls." "These weapons are as real as our own hands in front of our faces," she says, "and the only way we live normally . . . is by banishing them to the realm of fiction . . . I wanted to make sure they felt real."

In Radiant Heart, these once coldly calculating scientists seek redemption not for themselves but for a fallen world they helped create. "Religion and science fail when we use them to glorify ourselves," Millet notes. "But when we use them to glorify and adore the rest of the world, not ourselves but everything else that is or lives—animals, plants, mountains, the light on water—then in a sense they're one and the same."

 
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