Trinity by Louisa Hall
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