Monday, January 22, 2007

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

For someone who likes her so much, I sure have been a jerk to Lydia Millet on this blog. First, I called her Linda for a while, and then I dropped the “Oh” from this here book I have been touting for a few months. I am sorry Lydia. There is no excuse for such poor publish- button control.

If you read the internet, then you know that OPRH is about what happens when physicists Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard reappear in the mortal coil circa 2003 in the exact places they were when the first atom bomb test clouded the skies of New Mexico in 1945. What you may not know is that this event was dreamt before it happened by a woman named Ann when she was laying next to her devoted husband Ben in a cozy martial bed in sunny Santa Fe.

OPRH is really Ann and Ben’s story, or at least it seems Millet wants it to be. Ann becomes obsessed with the reanimated physicists and develops a relationship with the three that flirts with the maternal, the devotional and the romantic. Ben gets left behind many times in this book and is fully aware of his desertion, and Millet gives us enough of him as a character that it matters. Watching the two work within their changing relationship is interesting even when we know what is going to happen, even when Ann is annoying and Ben is annoying, even when the moral (wrong word) of the book threatens to overwhelm. Their story is one of passion and compromise, as well as a thoughtful meditation on marriage. I didn’t quite expect to be thinking about them after I finished the book, but I have been, or at least I have been thinking about the effects of external forces on relationships, which sounds boring, but isn’t.

The physicists are roundly imagined by Millet and as each becomes less a ghost and more a force in today’s world, their presence takes over the book, and in Oppenhiemer’s case, we are let into the thoughts and feelings of an impossible being. Leo Szilard is an amazing character, so keenly observed, even in his scheming, lonely foulness, that I can almost imagine the dead man chuckling in his grave.

The three physicists live out a perverted version (but maybe an increasingly common one) of the American dream. First they get the fame, then they get the money, then they become a plague, then they became puppets and then—nothing. They are forgotten again, after a cruel murder by the supporters who came to control them. Millet creates a whole world of characters in the physicists followers, Ben’s landscaping clients, Ann’s library patrons, each with a back story that teases and tugs, each a mirror of America’s fringe and mass. As she showed in George Bush: Dark Prince of Love, Millet has a strong grasp of politics and history, and she is angry. OPRH is full of facts, culled from what must have been a total immersion in the world after 1945 and an obvious, but not repugnant in that, agenda. Orwellian, even. That’s right, I said it! What I liked about this was that it sent my mind creeping around my memory of books read and history learned; when I came up short, a desire was kindled in me to do some biography reading continue my limping quest to learn all that I didn’t in school. I have been doodling around the WWII era for quite a few years (briefly sidetracked by an interest colonial America) with the Chinese lady Communists, and the code breakers and the spaceship SF, and now I want to know more about the science.

OPRH may be big, but each page rejects chunky text blocks. There is tons of dialogue, lists and font-based interruption of the narrative. For me, a little of this goes a long way, and sometimes my eye got tired navigating the jumps and underscores to get to the words. This book also suffers from what I call the “one paragraph punch in the face.” Perhaps because the book is so dense, or maybe because of the desire for textual interruption, there are approximately one zillion one sentence paragraphs of power. It stops working, sadly, and I began, instead of taking that sentence as important and deserving of extra consideration, to be pulled out of the story and annoyed. Punch, punch, dodge.

Overall, Millet has seen what I have seen, but instead of stewing and feeling impotent, she wrote an awesome, smart, imperfect, hurtling SF book that more people should read. I can’t get over how insightful she is, and how her imagination made this impossible story so terrifyingly urgent.


Bye bye 2006.

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