Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Someone from Booklist has read Lydia Millet's Oh Pure And Radiant Heart and encourages would-be readers to “think Twain, Vonnegut, Murakami, and DeLillo.” Since I enjoyed the novel enough to finish it, I think I'm qualified to amend that list.
Twain: do not think Twain. Not even for a second. You're thinking “Twain” right now, and I'm telling you: no. Stop. Twain loved nothing more than, as the British punks say, “taking the piss.” Millet probably began her novel with the intention of taking the piss out of America's soul-withering reliance on nuclear arms, but when she's not focusing on that, she's putting the piss into so many other narratives — particularly the marriage of Ann and Ben, a bond which goes further than the novel's fantastic ending to strain all credulity — it frequently became difficult for me to take seriously what the author takes seriously. This is not Huckleberry Finn. This is not even Tom Sawyer, Detective. This is simply not Twain.
Vonnegut, Murakami: fairly apt comparisons, actually. Millet takes a cheerfully flaky approach to the most dire subject imaginable and uses absolutely everything she has at her disposal to make her argument sing and persuade, a tack similar to that of Vonnegut and Murakami. Having said that it is important to reiterate, I think, that Vonnegut and Murakami achieve their effect with varying degrees of success. Same, here. Oh Pure And Radiant Heart might not resonate as deeply as Slaughterhouse Five, but there is no denying the similarity of approach and effect.
DeLillo: yes. Lots and lots of DeLillo. The principal characters puzzle over the significance of the most arcane subjects that float across their field of vision, which sometimes yields surprising insights, and at other times yields unintentionally comic punchlines. This is definitely DeLillo, who can be obliquely terrifying and heartbreaking but who can also strain the patience of readers who finally have to get the groceries in from the car.
I will add one name to this list, a substitute for America's greatest satirist: Madeleine L'Engle, a fanciful writer who loved science, but for whom physics was not always metaphysics enough. L'Engle's raison d'etre as a writer was to explore the motivations that turned people from loving and lovable creatures into dire grotesques that would willingly exterminate another's — indeed, all — life. There are moments when Oh Pure And Radiant Heart reads like A Wrinkle In Time, utterly divorced of the daily and grounding concerns of family. This might be intentional; it is frequently effective. But it also generates a confused sort of loyalty in the characters, which just as frequently tried my patience as a reader.
It is surely a rich irony that New Mexico, which has played host to so many nuclear tests, is one of America's most fecund artistic locales and the launching site of various strains of New Age thinking and behavior. Is this novel a satire of this sort of vaguely arty, misplaced hope? Is it an evisceration of the mentality that absurdly relies on nuclear arms for a sense of safety? Does it lay bare a muddle that our society has persuaded itself is a mystery? Occasionally the novel succeeds at all of the above — too occasionally for me to give it a flat-out recommendation.
View all my reviews