Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
About the book:
In Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, the three dead geniuses who invented the atomic bomb-Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi-mysteriously appear in Sante Fe, New Mexico, in 2003, nearly sixty years after they watched history’s first mushroom cloud rise over the New Mexico desert in 1945. One by one, they are discovered by a shy librarian, who takes them in and devotes herself to them.
Faced with the evidence of their nuclear legacy, the scientists embark on a global disarmament campaign that takes them from Hiroshima to Nevada to the United Nations. Along the way, they acquire a billionaire pothead benefactor and a growing convoy of RVs carrying groupies, drifters, activists, former Deadheads, New Age freeloaders, and religious fanatics.
In this heroically mischievous, sweeping tour de force, Lydia Millet brings us an apocalyptic fable that marries the personal to the political, confronts the longing for immortality with the desire for redemption, and evokes both the beauty and the tragedy of the nuclear sublime.
About the author:
LYDIA MILLET is the author of several previous novels, including Everyone’s Pretty and My Happy Life, which won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. She lives in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.
1. One of Lydia Millet’s particular strengths as a storyteller is her ear for dialogue. There are conversations throughout Oh Pure and Radiant Heart in which the word choices and speech patterns of all the characters involved feel razor sharp, genuine, and up-to-the-minute. Pick out a few of these, explaining what about them strikes you as especially true.
2. Who is Eugene? What literary, thematic, symbolic, and even religious purposes does he serve in this saga?
3. Faith and science, fiction and fact, life and death, war and peace, mass movements and individual longings, history and heartbreak, military might and biblical apocalypse, image/spin and truth/reality, miracles and media, the atomic bomb and the last remaining superpower: discuss Millet’s book as a novel of ideas, a literary work meant to challenge or even alter one’s thinking or assumptions.
4. Where do Fermi and Oppenheimer go after the group visits the Peace Museum in Hiroshima—where does each man escape to? And why do they return? What brings each of them back?
5. Throughout the book, we encounter Ann’s keen and graceful musings— her inner thoughts, freewheeling reflections, impressionistic associations. Reread several of these, discussing what each told you about this novel’s richly defined heroine. Who else in the novel thus reveals his or her meditations to us, and why?
6. What do we learn about Ann’s mother and father? When did they die, and how? What were they like as parents, and as people? Describe how and why the scientists—especially Oppenheimer—might be seen as father figures for Ann.
7. This book often reads like an indictment of contemporary American society—witness its treatment of our cars (SUVs), our cults (Grateful Deadheads), our cities (the “squalor” of downtown Washington, D.C.), and our crass consumerism (Szilard’s equally unhealthy and incessant appetite). Identify a few of the novel’s points made in this regard that particularly resonate with you.
8. When exactly does Ben start “believing in” the physicists? When does he start believing that they are who they say they are (and not, for instance, deranged con artists)? Or does he never believe as much?
9. As a narrative, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart alternates between a tale of both personal and philosophical quests and an informed critique of nuclear weaponry. Talk about how these two accounts echo each other over the course of the book, how they converse with and fortify one another. Which facts or details in these pages surprise or even shock you, as a reader? Also, is this book ultimately more of a postmodern historical novel, in your opinion, or a postmodern history lesson—more of a fable, or an inquiry? When answering this, revisit the final, summarizing, passage of the novel (the last four paragraphs).
10. Talking to Oppenheimer and Ann while walking along a beach, the always-in-hyperdrive Szilard says, “I had initially assumed this country was civilized . . . But in fact it has only a thin veneer of civilization. It is a country of ignorant cultists. They are grossly illiterate. Most of them cannot pinpoint New York or Los Angeles on a map. They still believe Iraq bombed the World Trade Center. Why? Because they believe anything the powerful tell them . . . Their lack of education makes them easy pickings. These people are savages, manipulated by demagogues.” Do you agree? Why or why not? If you do agree, hasn’t American society always been this way? And if you don’t agree, point out the faults in Szilard’s logic.
11. At one point, Szilard is reading a biography of Elvis Presley. With whom does the scientist identify in this biography, and why? Also, why do you think Szilard is the only one of the three scientists who does not have trouble adjusting to the “new” life—to the patterns, dimensions, habits, and realities of the early twenty-first century?
12. How would you characterize the link between the meek, mild-mannered (and perhaps moderately insane) Enrico Fermi and his beloved whooping cranes? Did he summon them? Did he foretell their arrival? Did he know they would come to the rescue? Explain. How does Ben seem to understand this link?
13. Discuss the portrayal in these pages of Bradley, his wife, and the rest of the Evangelicals and Born-Agains. Did you find these renderings on-target or off the mark? Accurate? Distorted? Comic? Frightening? Familiar? Stereotypical? Explain your views with citations from the book.
14. Near the end of the novel, as we learn of Ann and Ben’s post-climactic life following their time with the physicists, we read, “It was hard to remember sometimes that history had ended.” Expand on this feeling, this “age of anxiety” mind-set. Do you detect a note of irony here, or perhaps even sarcasm? Why or why not?
15. Finally, how do you account for the title of this book? Also, go back and explore/explain the equally lyrical names of the novel’s four main sections.
PRAISE FOR THIS NOVEL
“For all its zaniness, this book is a serious indictment.”
—Sheri Holman, The Washington Post
“It’s a wonder the novel itself doesn’t explode, but Millet’s confident writing holds the center.”
—Susannah Meadows, The New York Times
“Millet gives a whimsical conceit real depth . . . A superb, memorable novel.”
“Lively, provocative fiction, graced by good writing and a refreshingly offbeat worldview.”