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joseph kanon   Imagining the Icon  
 
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  When I began writing Los Alamos I didn't know that J. Robert Oppenheimer would become a major character in the story. Using 'real' characters in fiction is problematic at best--the reader brings his own preconceptions to the page and this can make a fatal dent in the imaginary world you're trying to create. (Los Alamos, of course, is a 'real' place--you can go there--but the Los Alamos of 1945 exists only in photographs and in the memories of the surviving Manhattan Project members. All the buildings and dirt roads and jerrybuilt laboratories are gone, replaced by a modern American town. We now have to imagine it.) E.L. Doctorow and Gore Vidal have managed to do it brilliantly, but they are exceptions in any case. I didn't want to write a roman à clef about the real scientists and spies at Los Alamos, my characters would be my own. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer was needed to set the plot in motion. In the same way, Roosevelt was President--useless to pretend otherwise. So I took a chance and drew him into the story, for one scene only. What happened (it's impossible here to avoid a writer's cliché) was that the minute he walked onto the page, he began to dominate the story, just as he had dominated the Project itself, and I realized that so much of my fascination with the Project, its endless details, always came back to him. He became, almost without my intending it, the embodiment of the Project in all of its contradictions--its intellectual achievements, great hopes, and its appalling legacy.

To a beginning writer, such a character is a gift: brilliant, charismatic, arrogant, sensitive to the moral dilemmas he'd helped to create, and ultimately doomed to be undone by the malice and folly of people he thought he could influence, trying to manage the nuclear genie he'd let out of the bottle. Could anyone have made up Robert Oppenheimer? It's impossible now for me to think of Los Alamos without him, the spine of the book. But is he real? Since the book's publication, people who knew him have assured me I 'caught' him, but while it would be flattering to think so, perhaps I only caught the part of him they knew. Everyone is essentially unknowable and Oppenheimer seems to me especially complex. Certainly I tried to get details right--I think any writer using 'real' people has a responsibility to pay attention to the historical evidence--but he remains, in the end, Oppenheimer as I imagine him.

Icons make us think, and reflect something back about ourselves. When I was a boy, Oppenheimer was one of the most famous men in the world; today young people have scarcely heard of him. If Los Alamos causes us to brush the dust off the icon a little and look at it again, it will have done something more than it originally set out to do, and that icon is well worth the look. For better or for worse, the world we have now is partly his and the questions his character raises--about the limits of scientific inquiry, the role of the intellectual in political society, and how we manage our abilities to destroy ourselves--are questions we're still trying to answer. When the book was published, a friend gave me a photograph of Oppenheimer, taken in the later years at Princeton, and sometimes I find myself looking at those extraordinary, haunted eyes and wondering what he would make of it all. But that's what icons are for, isn't it?
 
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Copyright © 1996 Joseph Kanon.

Photo of Joseph Kanon © Marion Ettlinger.