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The plot of Lydia Millet’s brilliant new novel, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (Soft Skull Press), hangs on a rather remarkable premise: Ann, a Santa Fe librarian, dreams about the Trinity A-bomb test; subsequently three of the Manhattan Project physicists–all long dead–reappear. Robert Oppenheimer awakens in a Santa Fe hotel room, Enrico Fermi turns up in a gutter in the pouring rain, and Leo Szilard materializes under a University of Chicago cafeteria table. The elegant, refined Oppenheimer is bewildered by modernities like saggy jeans (“an engineering marvel”) and TV remotes. The reticent Fermi goes mildly catatonic. And the ebullient Szilard revels in his new surroundings, grooving on Ice Cube and sparkly toothpaste. The scientists end up crashing with Ann and her gardener husband, putting a bit of a strain on their relationship; eventually all five travel to locales like Hiroshima and the Nevada Test Site on a quest for nuclear disarmament. Along the way the group grows to encompass a caravan of peaceniks and religious fanatics, some of whom regard Oppenheimer as the Second Coming, and it all culminates in a violent and fantastical march on D.C. Millet tackles some big ideas in this funny, scary, supersmart novel–knowledge, love, war, suffering, annihilation–and her many historical asides reveal all too well what Oppenheimer observes late in the book: “We have the power of gods but we do not have the wisdom. This is our tragedy.” Thu 10/27, 7:30 PM, Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, 773-769-9299.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kieran Suckling.