It's the first day of fall, and the publishing industry is worried. As the year comes to a close, you can expect more articles like this one from the AP, reporting on the breathless search for the Great American Novel of 2005. "Nothing's going to be Gilead this year," says a Barnes & Noble book buyer, referring to Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which became a surprise bestseller last year. This year's great hope seems to be E. L. Doctorow's Civil War novel The March, which John Updike raved about in a recent issue of The New Yorker.
Someone needs to tell these people about -- and I know this term generates inexplicable fear in the hearts of big publishers and chain bookstores -- independent presses. One such publisher, Brooklyn-based Soft Skull Press, has released a novel that's been drawing uncommonly consistent praise from the publications that have actually noticed it. Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart has won over critics at The Oregonian, The Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages, PopMatters and The Philadelphia Weekly (scroll down to the third item).
In Millet's novel, the principal architects of the Manhattan Project --Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard -- disappear after the first test detonation of the atomic bomb, and are transported to modern-day Santa Fe. The three are cared for by a New Mexico librarian, and soon realize they have a moral obligation to work for nuclear disarmament. It's a mystery and a redemption tale, and it's one of the most daring conceits by a novelist in recent years. Millet tells Newsday that Oppenheimer and company were the perfect subject matter for her novel: "In the end, the scientists were all brilliant and had good intentions -- most were working to stop the Nazis, and never had any interest in the Pacific. They worked hard and invented the most destructive thing ever. It is tragic, and sadly perfect."
So will the mainstream press -- and the folks who decide the Pulitzers, the National Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Awards -- give Millet the attention she'd get if Random House, and not Soft Skull, had published her book? In an interview with the Village Voice, Millet doesn't sound too optimistic: "The literary fiction machine in this country ... seems to have a horror of overstepping itself. Perish the thought we should be as fantastic or monstrous or panoramic as movies or TV!" That's too bad for the literary fiction machine, but the rest of us don't need to make the same mistake. Still looking for this year's Great American Novel? You might want to start here.