Trin­ity by Louisa Hall

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Trin­ity, Louisa Hall, Ecco/HarperCollins, 336 pages

Seven fic­tional char­ac­ters re­visit the life of J. Robert Op­pen­heimer (1904-1967), the Amer­i­can the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist and first direc­tor of the Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory, in this novel cov­er­ing a span of 20 years.

Vi­gnettes of sci­ence, his­tory, and bi­og­ra­phy ex­pressed through these well-rounded char­ac­ters raise ques­tions about how well any­one can ever truly know an­other per­son. The char­ac­ters are an army in­tel­li­gence agent, a Women’s Army Corps mem­ber at Los Alamos, an aca­demic friend, a mar­ried Prince­ton sec­re­tary with an eat­ing dis­or­der, a clos­eted les­bian neigh­bor, a New Eng­land prep school stu­dent, and a woman jour­nal­ist. Also fea­tured are real-life peo­ple who were im­por­tant to Op­pen­heimer, such as his wife Kitty and Jean Tat­lock, his Com­mu­nist lover who com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1944.

Hall fin­ished writ­ing her novel about Op­pen­heimer in the months af­ter Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion, when, she has said, “un­der­stand­ing the mo­ti­va­tions of an in­com­pre­hen­si­ble man with ac­cess to nu­clear weapons” be­came par­tic­u­larly ur­gent.

Trin­ity be­comes a nar­ra­tive ex­plo­ration of the gap be­tween pub­lic and pri­vate selves, as the novel makes plain that peo­ple are un­re­li­able, and that be­tray­ing oth­ers is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked with be­tray­ing our­selves. As the fic­tional char­ac­ters in­ter­act with Op­pen­heimer and grap­ple with his mixed legacy, they re­al­ize dis­qui­et­ing truths about their own lives.

Along the way, the au­thor recre­ates the press­ing con­cerns of Amer­i­cans at the mid­cen­tury mark. As a com­pelling fram­ing de­vice, at the be­gin­ning of each chap­ter, Hall shows Op­pen­heimer at work in Los Alamos lead­ing right up to the test of the bomb. The novel also in­cor­po­rates the so­cial back­drop of McCarthy­ism, sus­pi­cion, and the lim­i­ta­tions put upon women at the time.

Hall’s nar­ra­tive choice to ex­plore sev­eral char­ac­ters’ dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions of Op­pen­heimer un­der­scores the man’s in­scrutabil­ity, as well as the ques­tion of whether he could be trusted in mat­ters of na­tional se­cu­rity. This theme con­sis­tently echoes through­out the novel. Hall fin­ished writ­ing the book in the months af­ter Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion, when, she has said, “un­der­stand­ing the mo­ti­va­tions of an in­com­pre­hen­si­ble man with ac­cess to nu­clear weapons” be­came par­tic­u­larly ur­gent. In one of the novel’s nar­ra­tive frames, Hall writes, “In such dan­ger­ous times, when the or­der of the world seems to shift, it be­comes es­sen­tial to un­der­stand peo­ple’s mo­tives.”

Hall’s char­ac­ters cast light on their own fail­ures, suc­cesses, and con­tra­dic­tions, and also on Op­pen­heimer’s. The sci­en­tist was a for­mi­da­ble thinker and an ac­tivist for lib­eral causes — but he was also the fa­ther of the atomic bomb, as well as some­one who be­trayed his Com­mu­nist friends and lied about his af­fairs. In Op­pen­heimer’s ini­tial de­fense of the use of the atomic bomb and sub­se­quent lob­by­ing against nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion, Hall ex­plores not only his in­tel­li­gence but also the na­ture of du­plic­ity and self-delu­sion.

New Mex­i­cans have long found Op­pen­heimer to be a wor­thy char­ac­ter to pon­der (see the suc­cess of Doc­tor Atomic, the op­er­atic work by John Adams and Pe­ter Sel­lars fea­tured at the Santa Fe Opera this past sum­mer). Hall’s book am­bi­tiously takes on far-reach­ing is­sues at Los Alamos in a pas­sion­ate, per­sonal way. — Pa­tri­cia Leni­han

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