Self-knowledge, art, faith and the Bomb

Review Novel

February 18, 2007|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds,Los Angeles Times

Changing Light

Nora Gallagher

Pantheon / 224 pages / $22

Self-consciousness is not, by any means, limited to literary types. But writers and readers often seem to possess an extra dose of it. I like to think of it as a kind of third eye: Now I am shopping like a maniac to distract myself from desperate loneliness; here I am looking longingly at the oncoming train that could end my life; will the person standing next to me in this silent elevator be the one? Every so often, a reader might find herself wishing she could just look at a tree with bare branches in winter and see a tree with bare branches in winter, instead of a metaphor or an unfolding sequence of scenes, or the death of a beloved character. Self-consciousness, in other words, does not always lead to self-knowledge. One longs for the smallest reducible truth of a thing.

Eleanor Garrigue, one of the three main characters in Nora Gallagher's first novel, Changing Light, is searching for self-knowledge. A painter, Eleanor spends long hours in the desert around her home outside Santa Fe, N.M. It is the summer of 1945, and Eleanor has finally left New York and her husband, a prominent art dealer. She has restored a small house and employed a maid. Her beloved brother Teddy is missing in action somewhere in the Pacific.

She is not lonely until she finds a man lying by the river, unconscious and close to death. She brings him home and cares for him. After a few days, he comes to. He will not reveal his identity. In some sense, that only seems appropriate, because Eleanor's identity is in question too.

Gallagher tells us that the man is Leo Kavan, a physicist from Czechoslovakia. He is the scientist who first presented the idea of the neutron chain reaction (nuclear fission) to Albert Einstein, who then presented it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In these and several other aspects, Kavan resembles Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born physicist who patented the chain reaction and predicted that uranium would sustain that reaction. The process was tested, famously, by Enrico Fermi and others at the University of Chicago and then perfected at that secret city in the New Mexico desert, Los Alamos.

Leo has gone to work at Los Alamos. He is given an alias and warned repeatedly of the secretive nature of his work. After an accident in which radiation is emitted and a fellow scientist is killed - a similar accident did in fact occur during Szilard's tenure at Los Alamos - Leo crawls under a fence and wanders into the desert, where Eleanor discovers him. Of course, the authorities come looking for him. Meanwhile, in his delirium, he worries about his sister Lottie, still in Prague. Once rationality returns, he is determined to persuade the American military not to drop the bomb. Now that the Germans have left the war, Leo and Eleanor, along with so many other Americans, can't understand why "the gadget" (as it is called at Los Alamos) should be turned on the Japanese.

Eleanor bears a strong resemblance to Georgia O'Keeffe, who was married to the New York dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz and who also quit the New York art world for New Mexico. She looks out her kitchen window on the Jemez Mountains; she has a dog named Rita; she loves the juniper and pinyon, the chamisa and aspen. Every so often, she drives into town, where she visits the local priest, Father Bill Taylor. He is a good man, and vulnerable, who often thinks about grace and faith and prayer and who wonders whether he's doing it all correctly. He has fallen in love with Eleanor.

In the character of Father Taylor, Gallagher brings to bear all of her own experience in matters of faith. Her first two books, Things Seen and Unseen (1998) and Practicing Resurrection (2003), were explorations of her life as an Episcopalian, including her experiences as a lay Eucharistic minister at Santa Barbara's Trinity Episcopal Church.

The priest's great lesson is that faith is neither intangible nor abstract. This echoes what Gallagher has said in interviews about her work. For her, rather, faith is an "accumulation of experiences," with much stumbling along the way. Gallagher is kind to Taylor as he moves toward a richer understanding of his relationship with God and his own path of self-knowledge. He realizes, for example, that he has grown used to praying "as if sending a memorandum to God: Pay attention to this, and this, and that. Thank you for that and this."

With Changing Light, Gallagher has chosen a playing field where art, science and faith intersect. In their brief and beautiful communion, Eleanor and Leo ask each other vital questions. "What is physics, anyway?" she wonders. "Physics is a battle for final truth," he tells her. "A truth. Even a final truth, but not the truth. Because once you found what you thought was the truth, another, more `final' truth will come along, sooner or later."

Then Leo asks Eleanor for her thoughts on painting. "Sometimes," she says, "I think of it as breaking things up into their parts or their shapes, or their essences, as Kandinsky would say." That's a fascinating response, especially given the frighteningly reductive work of the physicists, many of whom were unable to foresee, much less prevent, the terrible uses of their research.

Breaking things down to truth and light - not just paintings and atoms - but the nature of self, the sources of faith and the purpose of life. This is the subject of Gallagher's ambitious, moving and insightful novel.

Susan Salter Reynolds is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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