The monkey contemplates death and what comes after.
The monkey is not pleased, and vows to avoid the event if possible.
Heaven is Small
by Emily Schultz (2009)
To start off this review, I do not want in any way to get into some sort of discussion on the merits of Heaven as being an actual place. No one knows what Heaven really is, or if it exists in any form, so if the depiction of the ethereal plane we are about to discuss offends you as being inappropriate to your own understanding of the place, well, my blog, my rules.
Personally, I have no problem with anyone imagining what the afterlife might consist of; I only care that the presentation be, oh I don't know, at least somewhat interesting. My first real introduction to what lies beyond the sheltering sky (outside of the interminable Sunday school classes I was forced to sit through, fidgeting, bored, and yearning for release) was, strangely, the Disney movie The Black Hole. At the end (spoiler alert!), the entire cast is consumed by the unimaginable gravity and chaos of the black hole, and then we are treated to possibly the most disturbing imagery of Hell ever placed within a kids-friendly movie about wise-cracking robots and movie stars past their prime. The mad doctor Reinhardt and his evil (but oh so cool!) robot Maximilian are somehow fused together and are placed on a mountaintop overlooking fields of flame and watching mindless drones march endlessly upward (click here for a clip - jump to the 2:06 mark). Freakin' disturbing stuff, especially to a ten-year-old. Meanwhile, the heroes zoom their spaceship to a dimension of glittering stained glass and winged beings. Boring!
Since then, I've learned that the afterlife is pretty much whatever the author (or art director) wants it to be. I don't remember what my first literary visit to the great beyond might have been (excepting the Bible and variations thereof, of course), but I remember that then, as now, I was often underwhelmed by the paucity of inventiveness on display. On the minus side, I've suffered through the distressingly mundane visions offered in releases such as M. Scott Peck's In Heaven as On Earth and Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, books aimed at the undiscerning literal-minded mass-market consumers of Chicken Soup books, books that promise a Heaven that is angelic, nonthreatening, unimaginative, and ceaselessly dull. Books that make Hell seem at least interesting by comparison. These books offer homilies and comfort in place of actual theological thought. They're the snuggies of the book world. That came across a touch more snobbish than I anticipated, but these are bland, bland, unflavoured ice-milk bland books with not a single challenging idea in them. They are sympathy cards in book form.
On the plus side, many authors have put a little more thought into it. Keven Brockmeier's brilliant A Brief History of the Dead posits a world where the deceased live on until all who remembered them have passed on as well. In The Last Battle, C.S.Lewis posited that his land of Narnia was the afterlife, or at least one realm of its expanse. The sci-fi master Robert A. Heinlein, in books such as Job and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, offered visions of the afterlife which were creations of the mind itself and thus alterable through will.
My point? It's the afterlife, people! Sheesh, have some fun with it! And thank you, Emily Schultz, who in Heaven is Small definitely had a ball with the theme.
Gordon Small is dead. We think. He's not sure, as he's too busy prepping for a mysterious job interview with the Heaven Book Company. Gordon is quickly hired to proofread cheap and plentiful romance novels; terrible books written in prose so purple the "ardour of the reading material left a taste in his mouth like old coffee." The specifics of his position are vague, but then, so is the entire enterprise; no one seems to actually go home at night (resulting in a very creepy scene in a parking garage), Gordon can't remember the last time he went to the washroom, and pizza deliverymen are always nearby yet cannot seem to find the entranceway into the building.
What is clear is that Gordon is unhappy, but then, he aways was. Gordon is (was?) a failed novelist, one of "the sad pathetic souls...who had every faculty available to them for careers in literature but who couldn't step far enough outside themselves to see that what they had set down on the page was little more than an undergrad diary written with the assistance of a thesaurus." Gordon's one published novel was an unsurprising underachiever, "printed on cheap paper and given the kind of marketing afford a new style of gyro at a Greek restaurant." Worse, his ex-wife is Chloe Gold, a bestselling novelist who is still very much alive, and writing about Gordon's passing, a hint he is not too clueless to pick up on.
Schultz (whose novel Joyland is a real treat, seek it out) definitely enjoys traipsing about her central conceit, portraying the afterlife as not much different than life on this plane, full of office drones, unrequited sexual urges, and monotony. It wouldn't be fair to reveal every surprise the Canadian author lays for Gordon, but his dismay at his new digs quickly leads to a smartly realized scheme whereby his otherwise clueless fellow employees of Heaven "would realize that they deserved lives beyond what occurred at their desks."
Schultz has a gift for metaphor and simile, especially vivid when it comes to character descriptions: Gordon's boss Lillian's face "bore the pearl translucency of an embryonic sac" and had "a stringy, muscular body that looked as if the day she had been poured from the genetic vat she'd hung onto a bar while the rest of her body dripped down, icicle-like, and hardened: hips and legs as narrow as a splinter;" a co-worker's "lewd mouth seemed to tear his entire face."
Schultz uses Gordon's dilemma to bring a bittersweet tone to the novel. Heaven is Small is, as most books about death tend to be, rather about life than death. Gordon's life pre-Heaven was a wasteland of mall shopping and nights alone; now, given the mysteries of the infinite to confront, he again finds himself underutilized and disenfranchised with the whole affair. To quote the immortal Shatner from Star Trek II (and in a brief self-congratulatory aside, how many reviews have you read that reference C.S. Lewis, Mitch Albom, and Star Trek in one go? Not many, I reckon), "How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life." Death is a fearsome subject to contemplate, but to discover that it is an underwhelming experience must be devastating.
I'd rather not give away too many more glimpses into Schultz's heavenly imaginarium, as part of the joy of reading is the discovery of something fresh and new, even if it's couched in the familiar. Gordon's quest for more than death provides is at once bewitching, witty, and terrifyingly familiar, and packs a more interesting theological punch than a thousand treacly Albom sermons.
VERDICT: MONKEY LIKES A LOT AND THEN SOME