By Jennifer Reese
Updated March 17, 2020 at 02:57 AM EDT

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart

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You can write paeans to anal sex, fantasies about killing the president, and gorefests in which psychopaths flay their victims and devour their livers. No one will bat an eyelash. But there remains one subject so unspeakably terrifying that it has been largely relegated to the peripheries of polite modern fiction. That would be the end of the world. (No, Tim LaHaye novels do not qualify.) In her brilliant and fearless novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Lydia Millet takes a headlong run at the subject of nuclear annihilation, weaving together black comedy, science, history, and time travel to produce, against stiff odds, a shattering and beautiful work.

Ann, a mild-mannered librarian living in contemporary Santa Fe (she ”liked the calmness of the stacks, which she felt as the presence of thousands of minds, many sympathetic”), and her husband, Ben, have recently decided to start a family. After dutifully asking the question, How do you justify bringing a child into the world where ”rivers and seas and the fish that swam them were flowing with mercury, forests were being felled and deserts turned into strip mines”? Ann has arrived at a satisfactory, if depressing answer. ”If she had been given a choice before she was conceived, say to exist in chaos or not to exist at all: Chaos, she would have said. She would have said, not without sadness of course, still: let me come. Let me watch as all things fall apart.”

Will that answer hold? Days later, Ann dreams of J. Robert Oppenheimer in a porkpie hat, kneeling in sand and watching the first mushroom cloud blossom over the New Mexico desert in 1945. At the instant of her dream, Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard — three long-dead scientists responsible for the atom bomb — come back to life in the present day. Fermi, the glum genius, lands in a gutter; Szilard, a domineering intellectual and unstoppable glutton, appears under a cafeteria table; Oppenheimer, ”a skeleton animated by nicotine, a frail and fatless martyr,” awakens on a motel-room bed. Bewildered by push-button phones, arugula, and Twisted Sister, the men eventually make their way to Ann, who dreamed them into being and becomes their chaperone.

Millet wants to force these men who made knowledge their God to examine their legacy: They read their own biographies, travel to Hiroshima, and tour the Nevada Test Site. What they discover horrifies them: ”An egg hatched in 1945 and out of it, preening, crawled a bird that would never stop flying.”

Millet has wisely broken the novel into short segments, interspersing the somewhat harum-scarum central action — the scientists embark on a wacky cross-country bus tour to rid the world of nukes — with a wonderfully pithy and lucid history of thermonuclear weapons, as well as lovely, wise disquisitions on crowds, love, suffering, faith, and pity. Every time you think you’ve reached Millet’s closing epiphany, the ground shifts again.

Moreover, as might be expected from a woman who titled a raucous 2000 novel George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, Millet can be lighthearted. She pokes fun at her diverse cast of modern American types, from crass multimillionaires to dippy surfers, potheads, and fanatical Christians, before giving the book its surprising and sobering final twist.

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The plot doesn’t always proceed at a brisk clip, and you may occasionally wonder whether Millet is taking her strange material anywhere worth following. She is. But travel at your own risk: Where you end up is so very bleak that you may wish you’d stuck with the more familiar literary horrors of serial killers and incest survivors.

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart

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