Joshua Cohen's A Heaven of Others (Starcherone Books) could not be more different from his previous novel, Cadenza for the Scneidermann Violin Concerto. The latter is long and (literally) garrulous, a crazed monologue by a concert violinist who seizes the opportunity to regale his captive audience with the story of his friend, the composer Schneidermann, rather than play his scheduled cadenza. The former is short and fabular, narrated by an Israeli boy who has been blown up by a suicide bomber and finds himself in the wrong heaven--the Muslim heaven.
Cadenza is a maximalist novel that attempts to encompass--through Schneidermann--Jewish history in the 20th century, while A Heaven of Others is a minimalist novel that focuses on a single Israeli family without particularly emphasizing its Jewishness. And while Cadenza relates the stories of two older men and their accomplished, eventful lives, A Heaven of Others presents us with the abruptly terminated life of a ten-year-old yet to experience more than the formative days of youth.
Yet both of these books show Joshua Cohen to be a writer of determinedly innovative inclinations and should impress readers--whose numbers ought only to increase--both as already accomplished works of fiction and as harbingers of further engagingly experimental efforts to come. If A Heaven of Others is not exactly the book one might have expected from the author of Cadenza for the Scneidermann Violin Concerto, that very fact on reflection seems only to indicate this is a writer who will not necessarily pursue the same set of unconventional strategies (unconventional at first) but will produce experimental work in the purest sense: fiction that continues to surprise.
Perhaps the most noteworthy achievement of A Heaven of Others is the style Cohen has fashioned for his recently deceased narrator.
Now that he has made his ascent, he is wrong. In the wrong. Being dead, he's correct. But being dead where he is, he's in error. Incorrectly mistaken. Not him but here is what's wrong, all wrong, and the timing of it, too, for him, for now and for here.
Pigs tried to take me unto their squigglies, their hypnotically spiraling tails and their hairy and rotting though seemingly citric oiled flanks, exposed hunks of bunched phosporescent bone to hug tight with your thighs tightened against the grease of the wind, oinked me to grab on, snouted me out to hold on and hold tight, offering me to ride them out to wherever their flights might end, terminus, maybe hoping I'd guide them to safer, smoother landings. But I ignored them because of climbing, climbing is enough.
This is a nicely-calibrated blending of the natural ingenuousness of a ten-year-old boy (presumably rendered in Hebrew-inflected English) and the free-flowing perspective of one who has just become disembodied and finds himself inhabiting a realm where terrestrial linguistic conventions probably no longer apply. It lends the novel a kind of dreamlike poetry that is its most distinctive, and most compelling, quality.
What begins as a "mistake," a misplacement of the Israeli boy in the wrong heaven, becomes a realization on the boy's part that heaven must ultimately be the abandonment of all earthly religious divisions:
Listen and I will say what I have said. In this heaven as in any heaven I am no longer a Jew. In this heaven as in any heaven I am no more a Jew than I'm not. Jewful and Jewless. Listen. Then hear. Understand. To be religious in heaven is to be truly fanatic. . . .
And he learns to face the only eternity likely to be in store for us:
. . .Mostly however I am ambivalent about and to this death. Thriving off the fund of numb. And so to my death, too. Sunned. Both were inevitable. Are. Or at least one happened and another will happen, and so you will notice that I still say and so think Will happen becuase a mind of mine wants to believe in a future. Listen that that, too, will pass. Into waiting for waiting. Which will pass as well, on its own. There is not waiting in the future and there is no future in the (you understand). Listen and then passing will pass. Hearing, too. Again await the all over again. Understand, then listen anew.
An interview with Joshua Cohen can be found here, in which he discusses his work-in-progress, a novel that will apparently continue the thematic focus of A Heaven of Others, about "the last Jew on earth."
ADDENDUM A Heaven of Others is accompanied by numerous illustrations by the artist Michael Hafftka. While the drawings are, as far as I am able to judge, interesting enough, I can't really say they add much to or work very provocatively with Cohen's text. Perhaps a hybrid of fiction and art that truly reinforces the former, creates something new from the interaction of each, might still be created, but I don't think this is it.