Nuclear Assault

Lydia Millet savages our post- atomic world in her new book

Tucson novelist Lydia Millet has written the ultimate book about the bomb, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (Soft Skull Press, $25). In it, nuclear scientists Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard are mysteriously time-traveled to present-day Santa Fe and into the home of librarian Ann and her landscaper husband, Ben. Together, this family of five embarks on a journey that takes them as far away as Ground Zero at Hiroshima and as close to home as the Nevada Test Site just outside of Las Vegas. Soon, Oppenheimer is besieged by New Age hippies and crazy born-againers hungry for doomsday, leading the novel's protagonists into a political and spiritual conflict they can never fully control.

Millet is a ferocious writer with a sense of humor that is as dark as it is funny. Consider Oppenheimer and Szilard pondering the alien language of America's 21st-century youth:

I can't understand a damn thing they say, murmured Oppenheimer.

I'm learning the language. Bullshit dopeass gay-ass motherfucker, said Szilard carefully. Girlfriend, you a stanky ho.

But Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is more than a picaresque. There are passages in which the author offers powerful historical insight into the making and deployment of the bomb. Indeed, Millet has written a novel with the intellectual heft of Pynchon and DeLillo--only a lot more fun to read.

The Tucson Weekly got a chance to talk with Millet from her home in Tucson prior to her Friday, Oct. 14, appearance at Antigone Books.

Was your experience with the Nevada Test Site tour as absurd as the one Ann endures in the book? Are the tours really conducted by pro-nuke zealots?

It was almost exactly the same, in fact. In the book, there's an ancient tour guide on the bus, a loyal Nevada Test Site zealot who loves the place and is proud of its history. He looks at the ban on aboveground nuclear testing--which thank God has been in place since 1963--as a regrettable but temporary glitch in the Nevada Test Site's sacred mission. I pretty much copied him from a life model.

Once in Vegas, your characters stay at Luxor, a giant black pyramid. I find it symbolic, since Egyptian pyramids are vast tombs, which is what the bomb produces. So I guess my question is: How did you like Vegas?

Vegas is such a perfect satire of America; how could I not like it? Of course, like any satire, it gets old fairly quickly. And I'm really only talking about tourist Vegas, not the actual city. I don't know the actual city at all.

The Atomic Testing Museum is so weird, because it was put together with the help of Nevada Test Site workers who actually believe they were protecting America even as they irradiated countless Americans. That's some serious denial.

It's chilling. Yes.

Oppenheimer, or "Oppie," is embraced by rapturists. Are you suggesting that the recent explosion of religious crazies in this country threatens to undermine any significant protest movement?

I think the far-right, political fundamentalism that seems to be guiding so much of this country's leadership and discourse right now is apocalyptic. As such it threatens all those who don't necessarily welcome the end times.

Your novel is thoroughly researched and loaded with factual blasts that resonate between scenes. How depressed did you get learning about the hideous aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

I don't remember how old I was when I learned about the effects of the bombs on the people in those cities, but it was long before I started researching this book. I did read exhaustively, and I went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki just as my characters did, to be able to bring them there; and what you see when you look at those events is unspeakable. It's simply beyond words.

Fermi, Oppenheimer and Szilard possess such distinct personalities--in contrast to one another and to the so-called great minds of our current era. Do you believe men like these scientists, men with such powerful brains, walk among us today?

Yes and no. I think there are scientists of great brilliance and personal wisdom working today, but I don't think they walk the corridors of state as Oppie and even, to a far lesser degree, Fermi and Szilard once did. I don't think any intellectuals have that much power in our America. The manipulators have the power now--the spin doctors and demagogues and the interests they represent.

Having these men come to terms with what they've done 60 years after the fact makes them even more compelling, more tragic. Was that the idea?

Knowing the future is the one thing always denied even the most far-seeing of humans. I wanted to have these men meet the future of their society, because nothing could be worse--worse or more miraculous.

I read somewhere--in The New Yorker, I think--that your depiction of New Age folks and old hippies is clichéd. But all the West Coast counterculture people I know are really like the ones in your book. How is a writer to win?

Besides being true, clichés are funny. Some people just can't bring themselves to laugh.

There's so much haunting information in your novel. Like those weeping cherry trees blooming in D.C., that were gifts from the Japanese empire? The way they bloomed in the spring of '45? How did you go about researching this novel?

I ferreted out books on the scientists' lives, nuclear history and World War II in secondhand bookstores wherever I went, and then there was the Internet, endless source of apocrypha. I used search engines. I ordered old videos and atomic paraphernalia. I shopped on eBay. And finally, there was going there, Japan, the Nevada Test Site, Trinity, Los Alamos.

Which scientist do you most identify with, or empathize with?

I identify with Szilard for his sweet tooth and his underdog status, Oppenheimer for his love of poetry and what I reinvented as a certain mysticism. I empathize with all of them, because they all had good hearts, and the work they were so passionate about made them sad and killed them young.

How much of you is Ann, a daydreaming soul?

About as much as in Ben, or for that matter, Oppie. I tend to be a little more cheerful than Ann, and less self-contained than any of them. But luckily, they all said what I wanted them to.