Here’s a premise that might make you blink:
Let’s say three of the foremost Manhattan Project scientists—or versions of them—materialize in contemporary New Mexico at a crucial moment of their world history. The moment the bomb drops on Hiroshima?
The moment of the first major test of the atom bomb. The Trinity Test. (A name of foreboding: those scientists were a bit poetic, no?)
Let’s say a dangerously introspective librarian dreams of Oppenheimer at the Trinity moment. And then spots him at a bar on her way home from work. And at a funeral for a paranoid schizophrenic stranger who shoots himself in front of her, in the library’s children’s section. Shortly after she and her foxy gardener spouse decide to start having kids.
Then, let’s say, you make it all a little bit funny.
Is this how apocalypse might happen?
I spent a significant amount of time in graduate school learning and thinking about the ways that nuclear technology has transformed our society. But it was all somewhat abstract—ways that the concept of the atom bomb led poets and authors to change literary forms to reflect these new social realities. Ways that the bomb betrayed our humanist ideals of science as a noble endeavor, ever increasing in social benefit.
A bunch of abstract sh&#t. Important, to be sure. But abstract.
But Millet alternates her characters’ adventures with interludes describing the physical effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki residents. As madcap as the adventures may get, a little history lesson will snap you back to this reality:
Because weapons left over from the Cold War were too big to be used against rogue states, the argument went, and therefore would not have a deterrent effect—since no one could possibly believe the US would use such powerful weapons against weaker adversaries—the American military must have smaller weapons at its command, weapons whose use would not be unthinkable at all.
The construction of small nuclear weapons would therefore close the door on pure deterrence and open the door to practical, feasible, and convenient nuclear war.
These interludes occasionally seem like librarian Ann’s own research, as she tries to keep up intellectually with Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard. See, they materialize in 2003—perhaps she dreamed them to give her life meaning—and collect around her. She immediately and obsessively researches their lives, and the life of “the bomb” (there were actually several types of nuclear bombs, o’course), in an effort both to win their respect and get a leg up on them.
Reviews tend to comment on the madcap zaniness of the plot. Indeed. The scientists, along with Ann, husband Ben, and assorted hangers-on, travel from Japan to the Pacific island tests sites to Vegas and then, by bus, to Washington DC. There are hijinks and hippies and drugs and bikers and evangelical Christian armies.
The humans leave trash everywhere they go.
All alternating with various characters’ introverted speculations about very big ideas, like suffering, love, guilt, and reality. No one really speculates about god, though. Not even the evangelical warriors.
So yes, it’s true, the book’s gotta lotta plot.
But the plot felt, to me, like an inexorable result of these three dudes landing in the middle of the world that their life’s work wrought. What damage did their technology do to people at test sites and war zones? What would you do, if your devotion to knowledge led to such destruction and horror? If you were accustomed to a certain amount of stature and privilege? If your parents fled the Holocaust only for you to wreak several more holocausts?
Would you whip up a PR storm, assume your righteous place at the head of culture, and wield all that might to end nuclear technology?
Would you then collaborate with people who believe in literal apocalypse to drum up supporters? (Well, I wouldn’t, because I read the foreshadowing.)
When DeLillo writes about nuclear technology, or Pynchon, or when Wallace writes about its heirs–when any of these dudes write about Big Issues, even when they put a married couple at the center of the plot, they get put on magazine covers.
Millet got reviewed by Entertainment Weekly. To be fair, the New York Times gave her some space. But they were skeptical. This dude was downright bitchy.
Now, I like talking heads books. I don’t mind a little history with my dystopian love story. In fact, I prefer it. So maybe I’m a special case.
Sometimes the characters thinking Big Thoughts dragged on a bit, it’s true, but I think that’s part of the point. Eventually, so much knowledge and thought is deadening.
Literally, in the case of our WWII technologies.
And how do we respond? By continuing to trash our earth? By embracing totalizing religions? By watching penguins tap dance on YouTube?
The truth is, we always kill our Cassandras. We just don’t want to believe them.
And this book is a bracing, hilarious, and sorrowful depiction of our worst tendencies.