HEAVEN IS SMALL
By Emily Schultz
With apologies to Wallace Stevens, romance is our supreme fiction — its formulaic fantasies accounting for roughly a third of all mass market paperback sales. In other words, Harlequin and its ilk do not service a cultural niche; they are the mainstream.
This reality is ironically addressed by Toronto author Emily Schultz in Heaven is Small, an odd entertainment that imagines heaven as the high-rise headquarters of a publisher of industrial grade romance novels somewhere north of Toronto. Upon his death, an event he initially fails to notice, Gordon Small accepts a job as a proofreader at the Heaven Book Company. The reason he fails to notice his own demise is that heaven is depressingly patterned after the all-too familiar corporate grind: complete with cubicles, fluorescent lighting, electronic surveillance, and bitchy office politics. It seems that after a lifetime of being conditioned to such routines our souls can’t function without the same structure, however pointless, in the afterlife.
The concept is a quirky and well-executed twist on what is itself a bit of a romantic cliché. Gordon is someone whose love, in his case for his ex-wife Chloe, survives death. As per usual, he can continue to observe Chloe but has difficulty making contact with her. One immediately thinks of the tormented, passionate souls in movies like Ghost, The Sixth Sense, and even The Devil in Miss Jones. Damiano’s vision of hell is particularly apt because Schultz’s ghosts can’t emit bodily fluids like tears, saliva, blood or ejaculate. Gord has “enough circulation to produce a firm reaction of arousal,” but can never achieve release. As in any decent romance, strict rules of decorum are adhered to in heaven. Rock-rigid malehoods are “ball-less, only shafts, stitched on at the groin.” Even off-colour language is taboo. And yet for all that, it’s still a kind of porn.
The writing is quick and sharp, skipping with complex and effective imagery. Waiting for a pizza that will never arrive, a pair of Heaven employees watch an apocalyptic sunset “bubbling on the grey horizon like a bright, thick sauce just about to burn itself onto the bottom of a pan.” And Gord’s boss seems like the fearsome Hillary Clinton nut-cracker come to life: “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 narrow as splinters.” You could spend some time unpacking that.
Schultz’s novel is, finally, more interested in the exploration and development of its central conceit than telling a story. And that conceit is sometimes stretched to the breaking point. But there are some interesting ideas on tap. Not about love and romance, but matters such as the relation between writers and their audience – the latter paradoxically being identified with the God of the creation, the transcendent Other that any author has to believe in rather than succumb to the despair of tossing words into the void. Without readers writing is at best a kind of professional masturbation, even for those whose job it is to provide an aid for the same.
Review first published in the Toronto Star May 3, 2009.