Sunday, February 05, 2006

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

I'm so happy to have found Lydia Millet. Finally, a woman writer who takes on the social, political concerns, the big ideas, that are most often left to male writers. There is definitely some Don DeLillo in this novel (his observations on crowds in Mao II are overtly echoed here), but Millet is totally her own stylist, and I can't wait to read more.

This novel pairs the personal story of Ben and Ann, a gardener and a librarian respectively--gentle folk, obviously--with observations on nuclear war, cult behavior, and religious fanaticism, by dropping three atomic scientists from the 1940s into Ben and Ann's lives. The book is great on character, on language, and on observation, but, to my taste, a little wacky with plot (also a DeLillo trait), but still, it's now one of my favorite books of the past few years.

My undergraduate workshop has been talking about when to show and when to tell, and Millet is really great with telling. She uses lines of intellectual observation to add a deep layer of beauty and thought to what would otherwise be only a clever tale.

A bold example: "As she walked she became all abstract./ The opposition between the small and the big, the idea of the miniscule and the idea of the vast, she thought, is not far removed from the opposition between the mundane and the sublime./ And if the question were asked: What is more real, the mundane or the sublime? most would hesitate before they gave an answer./ On the one side details: say, the aftermath of a breakfast, dirty chipped plates in the sink, their rims encrusted with egg yolk. Against this, the unnameable: small aching heart with boasts, what can you know? Outside the cage of everything we ever heard or saw, beyond, outside, above, there lies the real, hiding as long as we shall live, there stretch and trail the millions of names of God burning across the eons. When all through this our end will come before we even know the names of us./ For many the egg yolk prevails."

For a more subtle example, see my reading in progress entry below.

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