“Oh Pure and Radiant Heart” by Lydia Millet, A Comic Novel about Nuclear Apocalypse

“Oh Pure and Radiant Heart” by Lydia Millet (2005) – 489 pages


In “Oh, Pure and Radiant Heart” the three nuclear scientists most responsible for developing in the early 1940s the United States atomic bomb – Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard – mysteriously show up in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2003.   In the Forties, there was a mad rush on the part of the United States to develop the atomic bomb.  As soon as it was developed in New Mexico, the bomb was dropped on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Many attribute Japan’s surrender in World War II to these two bombs.  Hundreds of thousands of people in these two cities died immediately as a result of the bombs, and many were still dying from the effects of the bombs thirty years later.   

Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no man can shut it.” – Revelations 3:8

 The above very meaningful sentence from the Bible is the prologue to the novel.

When the three nuclear scientists show up in Santa Fe in 2003, a young couple, Ann and Ben, adopt them and take them in to their home to stay.  Millet treats these scientists’ attempts to understand modern times with low comedy.  Leo Szilard is especially treated as a comic figure.   Naturally the scientists are interested in finding out what became of their invention, the atomic bomb.  Ann and Ben take them to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then to testing sites in the Bikini and Marshall Islands and then to above-ground and underground testing sites in Nevada  Soon the scientists decide to become active in the nuclear non-proliferation movement.  Their movement attracts all kinds of followers: hippies, New Agers, bikers, and religious zealots. 

 Of all the people in the world, the people who probably scare me the most are those religious people, especially politicians,  who are looking forward to the Rapture, and are doing whatever they can to cause the destruction of the world so they can get to their Rapture sooner. The goals of these insane people are far from disarmament.   The crazed Rapture crowd plays a big role in “Oh Pure And Radiant Heart’.  I just hope the Rapture movement has passed into history. 

 Reading “Oh Pure and Radiant Heart” was a pleasant read, but the novel was just too much for the story it tells.  As you see from the above, “Oh Pure and Radiant Heart” deals with some large overriding issues, yet at the same time much of it is low comedy.  The characters in the novel seemed for the most part cartoonish; they did not have enough depth to carry a long novel.  Inside this fat 489-page novel “Oh Pure and Radiant Heart” is an excellent skinny 179-page novel struggling to get out. 

 This is the second Lydia Millet novel I’ve read this year.  I much preferred her latest novel “Ghost Lights”, which is a much shorter novel where I think Lydia Millet has total control of her material.   I am anticipating the publication of Millet’s new novel, “Magnificence” which is scheduled to be published in November, 2012.


2 responses to this post.

  1. This is one of my favorites, Tony. It makes me realize I’ve got some anti-nuke protesting to do.

    I’ve got Ghost Lights on my TBR.



    • Hi Kat,
      At this moment I think the Koch Brothers are a much bigger threat to the world than atomic bombs, but i could be mistaken.
      Lydia Millet is definitely a writer to watch.



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