Novel's two storylines never seem to succeed

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Book review: “My God, What Have We Done” is an awkward blend of stories

By Arin McKenna

Anyone looking for reading material guaranteed to put them to sleep at night should pick up “My God, What Have We Done?” by Susan V. Weiss (Fomite Press, 2011).
The novel is an awkward blend of two storylines, one set in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and the other following the married life of a couple identified simply as Pauline and Clifford.
Pauline — who narrates the Pauline/Clifford storyline — is one of the most monotonous characters ever written. Pauline vacillates about her marriage from the time of her engagement through the end of the novel, and seems incapable of taking any action that would make her life more fulfilling.
The Pauline/Clifford storyline consists of every petty detail of the couple’s lives, including exhaustive detail about Pauline’s morning sickness, walking her son to school and her growing dissatisfaction with her marriage. There is absolutely nothing to interest the reader in the lives of these characters. Pauline makes no attempt to better her situation, and her self-pity becomes irritating long before the novel is over.
Weiss does a somewhat better job with the Manhattan Project storyline, which can most likely be attributed to Weiss’s sources (listed at the back of the novel). It is certain that at least one of those sources, the nonfiction “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos,” by Jennet Conant, is a much more absorbing narrative of the same events.
Weiss’s one attempt to really make the Manhattan Project material her own is an absurd chapter titled “The King and the Crock of Fire,” in which Weiss plays with the idea of the Manhattan Project as a myth, and Oppenheimer a god or a king. “The Oppenheimer god would confer with his fellow gods in their intangible dominion. None of them could advise him, though; they could not comprehend this unpredictable power that he must control, now that it was out of its theoretical lockup.”
Weiss’s attempts to tie the two storylines together are pathetic at best. Apparently, Pauline is obsessed with Robert Oppenheimer, but the only time that is evident is at the very beginning of the novel, when the couple attends a play about the life of Oppenheimer, while they are dating and visit Los Alamos on their honeymoon.
After that, the connection consists of strained analogies, like the couple naming a hand-cranked washing machine “the Gadget” and a chapter on Kitty Oppenheimer titled “Kitty Cat,” followed by a chapter on Pauline’s relationship with a neighborhood cat titled, “Henry the Cat.”
Toward the end of the novel, Weiss tries to mesh the two storylines with an absolutely surreal chapter titled, “The Effects of.” At that point in the novel, Pauline is contemplating separation from Clifford. “The Effects of” is a mishmash of images and a crude attempt to link the impact the atomic bombs had on Japanese families with the repercussions of divorce. Weiss’s endeavor to equate the two is at best inept, and at worse is a gratuitous exploitation of the Japanese survivors’ suffering to espouse her views of divorce.
It is not surprising that the novel ends with a whimper rather than a bang. Pauline seems as ambivalent about her separation from Clifford as she is about everything else in her life. The entire novel is as pointless as Pauline’s life, and definitely not one this reviewer would recommend to anyone.