The initial premise of this novel is an appealing one: the woman creator of the raunchy, underground-style superhero comic, Sputnik Girl, may actually be the heroine of her own story, transported from an alternate world. The operant word is “may” because Debbie Reynolds Biondi is so befuddled with tranquilizers, booze, and casual sex, she’s anything but a reliable narrator.
As the story unfolds, it simultaneously wanders from that premise as the true history of Sputnik Girl is revealed. Cataclysmic events like the testing and deployment of atomic bombs have fractured off alternative, parallel worlds from our own. In Atomic Mean Time, Debbie, her family, and friends, live in a polluted, increasingly totalitarian world that is careening toward thermonuclear catastrophe. As Earth Mean Time Debbie delves ever deeper into Sputnik Girl’s origin story, her own history unfolds.
Touches of humor abound, as do dark moments. The parallel-but-different details (like Richard Nixon committing suicide in Atomic Mean Time, but the Beatles were just as popular) were well done, but personal events like Debbie being molested as an adolescent didn’t play out emotionally as believably.
In the end, Sputnik Girl is rendered irrelevant to her own story. It’s not about finding the grit to transcend the horror of a dystopian, heart-breakingly unjust world, the way a superhero origin story works, but about sacrificing your own comfort and happiness for a greater good and then proceeding on to a rootless, emotionally numb life when no one but you remembers. I think the key to my dissatisfaction lies in the absence of grappling with personal trauma in the midst of a global tragedy. For me, the mirroring of internal and external struggle give a story resonance. That objection aside, the book moves along briskly, with nuggets of delight and despair interspersed with plot twists. Others may not feel as I do, and will enjoy without reservation this nicely paced, slyly humorous atomic tale.