In Sanskrit, he said, the root for the verb to measure was the same as the root for illusion. The truth of this relation, he said, had been demonstrated by quantum theory. To measure any aspect of the world, he said, was to pull an individual unit apart from the whole flow of a system, a flow of which that individual unit was an integral part, and which defined that individual unit as integrally as its own characteristics.
Hall’s uncanny ability to convey the whole flow of creation and destruction makes this splendid, moving novel an illumination for anyone interested in technology, human relations, and the lies we tell ourselves as we shy away from our fates. Hall is also the author of the novels Speak and The Carriage House, as well as numerous poems published in the New Republic, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. She has also played professional squash, and teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa.
JENNIFER CROFT: What first drew you to J. Robert Oppenheimer, or to the Trinity test?
LOUISA HALL: I wanted to write a book about the difficulty of knowing other people, especially when the stakes are high: when we feel we have to understand someone, if we’re going to survive him. But I was still looking for a form that would allow me to explore that difficulty when I picked up American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s incredible biography of Robert Oppenheimer. And as I was reading about his security hearings — when his colleagues and friends and family members were called to testify on his behalf, or against him, and almost universally ended up admitting that they didn’t entirely understand the decisions he’d made, that despite years of friendship, even years of intimacy, they couldn’t be sure that they’d ever known him — I started to think that perhaps this was my form: a series of testimonials on the nature of a man who seemed to hold the keys to the most frightening new technology on the planet.
Reading American Prometheus also got me thinking about the limits of biography. It’s the most complete possible biography — all the information is there. And yet, turning the pages, I was still plagued by the feeling that the Oppenheimer was evading me. Virginia Woolf says that biographers can only “give us the husk” of a life. Fiction, she says, can “extract the atom.” As I was reading American Prometheus, and all the other biographies of Oppenheimer that I could find, I was thinking about the question of getting beyond husks. What is the atom of a life? And how can fiction access it, in ways that biographical narratives can’t?
Your last novel, Speak, also works by switching perspectives. What appeals to you about this structure?
There’s a line in Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights — brilliantly translated by you — that explains my love of switching perspectives more elegantly than I ever could: “Constellation, not sequencing, carries the truth.”
Every time I try to write a story that proceeds in one voice toward a final conclusion, I have to stop. It’s circling around an idea — not marching directly into its center — that allows me to see it more clearly: from all its angles, in all its different forms, as it appears to all its different perceivers.
For me, the women in the book were the most riveting characters. Did you decide at the outset to foreground a feminine aspect of a seemingly masculine story of war, or did this happen along the way?
I didn’t set out to foreground the feminine aspect of this story, but it definitely did happen; the women in the book are the most interesting characters to me, as well. Even as I wrote the sections narrated by men, it was the women in their lives — their wives or girlfriends or ex-wives or mothers — who seemed to hold the key to the story.
I think some of that has to do with the fact that, in stories about war, women are often silent. And for me, it’s always the silent characters — the ones who are quietly standing around at the edges of things — who are the most intriguing. We often forget about women when we’re telling war stories. But Los Alamos was full of women who were essential to building that bomb, just as the cities that were destroyed by the bomb were also full of women. And if we’re looking for reasons to explain why Oppenheimer built the bomb, despite his early liberalism, there’s reason to think that we should turn to the women in his life. Some historians theorize that he abandoned his early beliefs and went to work for the war in order to impress his new wife. Most historians believe that he named the bomb test Trinity in reference to his ex-girlfriend.
Three of the main characters — Robert; his wife, Kitty; and his ex, Jean — don’t get to tell their own stories. Why did you decide to leave their voices out?
It’s a book about the difficulty — perhaps the impossibility — of knowing other people. For that reason, I didn’t feel confident stepping into the minds of real people like Robert, Kitty, and Jean, and speaking from their imagined perspectives. I wrote around them, instead, studying them from the perspectives of fictional people, who are of course all versions of me. I like to think that an oblique approach to Robert and Kitty and Jean leaves them more mysterious, but that there are still moments when their presence is felt.
Did your feelings about Oppenheimer change as you wrote? Did you ever hate him? Did you ever love him?
My feelings about him did change, and still do. Occasionally I’m overcome with pity for the guilt he had to bear, and the way — toward the end of his life — people pried into his personal secrets. Sometimes he makes me laugh: he cultivated a wild, ridiculous Western schtick and kept it up for most of his life. But other times he angers me: he lied a lot, and spent so much time and energy evading responsibility.
I have a lot of sympathy for the scientists who made the bomb. Many of them — including Oppenheimer — moved to Los Alamos imagining that they were creating a weapon that would never be used, a weapon so terrible that a single demonstration of its strength would end warfare forever. Most of them didn’t imagine it would ever be dropped on a Japanese city, let alone two. So, I can forgive him for leading the project, though as the months ticked on I do think he understood more and more clearly that the bombs would be used on Japan. Still, he didn’t have all the facts. He was operating without complete knowledge of how the bombs would be used, and how much long-term devastation they would produce.
What’s harder for me to forgive is that, when asked later in life whether he felt any guilt for his participation in the bomb, he always said no. It seems to me that, when called to account for pain that we’ve caused — even indirectly, and even before we had full understanding of the pain we might be causing — we should take responsibility.
Your prose is steady, almost quiet. That creates an interesting tension between the inherent drama of the subject matter and the way the reader comes to approach those almost inconceivably high stakes. Was that an effect you were striving for, and if so, why?
The more I read about nuclear weapons — both in history, and in the current news — the more hysterical I felt. To combat that, I tried to write as evenly and quietly as possible. I’m not sure why: it’s just the only way I was able to write the story without feeling as though I was veering off into melodrama. The more unnerved I felt about the instability of the world, the more I wanted to be able to rely on my language.
There are a lot of secrets in this book — affairs, spies, experiments — as well as a desire shared by many of the characters and historical figures to get to the bottom of things. On the one hand, there is the brutality of McCarthyism. On the other, the understandable hopes people have of understanding their husbands and wives. What interests you about secrets?
I think I’m mostly interested in people’s responses to secrets: sometimes they drive us insane, and we want to drag them out into the open. Other times they’re part of what makes us pleasurably intrigued about other people, or about other cultures. When do we become interrogators, torturers, savage detectives? And when are we content — even pleased — to live with a little mystery? I think it has something to do with whether or not we feel safe.
In the opening pages of the novel, you write: “[A]nother person is a mystery.” What’s the relationship, for you, between mysteries and lies?
I’m not sure I have a clear answer for this. In many ways, it’s the central question behind the novel, and the novel in all its sprawling messiness was my best attempt to circle around it. But I do think there’s a fundamental difference between mysteries and lies. Mystery, I think, is an aspect of love: knowing that we can never solve another person, or understand her perfectly, and that she will always exist somewhat beyond us. Lies, I think, operate in a state of paranoia that mystery will collapse. They’re false flags directing sleuths the wrong way, as though if those people were to continue their sleuthing, they would get to the answer. Lies assume that an answer is there to be gotten. That, in the end, the mystery of another person could be conclusively breached.
How did being an athlete shape you as a writer?
There were a lot of things I disliked about being an athlete — I hate running, for instance. And I’m a huge baby about physical pain, and I don’t like being watched.
But the part of being an athlete that I adored were the long hours spent quietly perfecting a technique: learning to tilt the racket face just so, so that the ping of the ball striking the strings was on pitch. When I stopped playing squash, I missed that obsessive attention to the precise details of pitch and angle and pacing. Writing has been a way for me to continue that practice.
How does being a poet shape you as a novelist? What is the role of poetry in this novel?
I always start novels with an idea for a form: I think that’s because I switched to novels from poetry. It’s never an idea that gets me going, but a shape that I’m looking forward to inhabiting.
Novelist and translator Jennifer Croft is a 2018–’19 Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, n+1, Guernica, Electric Literature, the New Republic, the Guardian, and elsewhere.