What's so funny about nuclear annihilation?
Three famed physicists star in an inspired fantasy that wittily warns of apocalypse
With apologies to fans of the "Left Behind" series, my idea of curling up with a good book doesn't usually involve the end of the world. Throw in the threat of nuclear annihilation, and I will find an excellent reason to go alphabetize my canned goods.
But "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart" by Lydia Millet ("My Happy Life") is that rarest of finds: a compassionate satire, with a terrific premise and writing that's so assured that readers should be lining up for admission to this dystopia.
In 2003, a Santa Fe librarian dreams of a man blinded by a nuclear explosion, and the next day, three physicists responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb wake up in modern America. "One was born in a motel room, one in a gutter. And the third was born again beneath a table that smelled of French fries and disinfectant, in a cafeteria at the University of Chicago."
Robert Oppenheimer (the man in the dream), Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard have no memories of their lives after the Trinity test, which set off the first atomic bomb 60 years ago this month. Time travel being a little disorienting, it's fortunate the three are geniuses.
Szilard, a happy glutton, adapts the most quickly, gobbling up fast food, hip-hop, reality TV, and the Internet.
Fermi sinks into a deep depression, and Oppenheimer is frankly and articulately appalled.
"More than any of it," he says, "what astounds me is the blindness of you people now. A civilization that is blind to itself. I mean blind. In my day there was ignorance too: ignorance is timeless. But at least we were ashamed of it."
Ann, the librarian, rounds up the three strays and brings them home to her husband, Ben, a gardener who loves his wife enough to live with three lunatics. Or con men - he can't quite make up his mind, although he comes to feel a great affection for Fermi.