A friend asked what I was reading. When I responded that it was a new novel based on the life and legacy of Robert Oppenheimer he said, “You know, there’s a real book about him.”
A real book being, of course, nonfiction, in this case the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Like many Very Serious People, my friend does not see the point of fiction, and especially fiction about real human beings. Fiction may be the lie that reveals the truth, to paraphrase Albert Camus, but many readers prefer to leave the middle guy out.
Which sets a challenge for “Trinity,” Louisa Hall’s intelligent, elegant and yet strangely elusive novel about the father of the atomic bomb. People who read fiction do so not for facts but illumination, not to explore what happened but what happens when (to quote someone else I cannot recall). In Oppenheimer’s case, what happened is a matter of historical record. As the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, he led the development of the nuclear weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Initially hailed, Oppenheimer later fell from grace after his outspokenness, including an initial opposition to development of the hydrogen bomb, drew political enemies. He was accused of treason and barred from access to military secrets. A political rehabilitation arrived during the Kennedy years, but he died of throat cancer in 1967 at the age of 62.
The only question that remains is what happens inside a man who coolly unleashes holy terror upon the world. Hall never enters Oppenheimer’s perspective, a wise choice but also a limiting one. Instead she seeks to answer the question by telling his story through the eyes of seven fictional characters with whom he comes into tangential contact. But human nature being what it is (even in fiction), these narrators are far more interested in their own lives than in the father of the atomic bomb, and thus so are we. There’s the perplexed Army intelligence officer who spies on Oppenheimer before the Trinity test; a Los Alamos-based Women’s Army Corps member in love with one of Oppenheimer’s senior scientists; a former colleague from Berkeley who entertains Oppenheimer and his wife in Paris after the war; a grieving secretary at Princeton who battles an eating disorder; a coming-of-age prep school senior who hears Oppenheimer speak during his time of political exile; a closeted lesbian neighbor on the island of St. John, where Oppenheimer spent many of his last years; and a journalist confronting her husband’s infidelity as she interviews Oppenheimer just before his death.
These characters dutifully report the historical record — Oppenheimer’s quoting of the Bhagavad Gita when recalling the Trinity test (“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”), his marriage and an affair with a woman who committed suicide, the way some Americans cooled to the A-bomb once its horrific, ongoing effect on the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came out — but the emotional weight of their sections lies in their own hurts and betrayals, their own flailing attempts to understand how, precisely, their own lives have somehow come to this. With their relentless self-examinations the protagonists mostly disprove one of the sharpest insights in the book, spoken by the female journalist:
“So many of us, I thought, when I was nursing my child, go through our lives making little real effort to understand why we behave as we do, and are therefore forced to act abruptly and with more force, simply to cover up our lack of any good explanation, so that we fly around through the world like so many dull knives, more dangerous to cut with than sharp ones.”
Such insights are not uncommon in “Trinity,” and the writing is elegant and true. There’s much to recommend here, but in the end the novel feels somewhat less than the sum of its impressive parts. The seven viewpoint characters fail to hold the center, and Oppenheimer remains as vague and enigmatic at the end as he was at the start. This is clearly the point — Oppenheimer loved physics, the journalist tells us, because it brought him “the realization that the very aim of understanding an individual unit might be inherently impossible” — but for readers of fiction, it’s a point that doesn’t really satisfy.
Kim McLarin is an associate professor at Emerson College and the author of “Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life,” which will be released in January.
By Louisa Hall
Ecco. 336 pp. $26.99.