Friday, August 20, 2010

Heaven is Small

Heaven is Small / Emily Schultz
Toronto: Anansi, c2009
284 p.

Author Emily Schultz is an accomplished author, poet, and web magazine co-founder and editor (see Joyland). Nevertheless, not being immersed in the same literary circles, I hadn't really heard of her previous to this novel coming to my attention.

The premise of this book is that Gordon Small, hapless joke-store employee and single man whose life is pretty routine and dull, dies on the first page -- no, not even that, in the first sentence.

Moments after his death, an event he had failed to notice, Gordon Small sought new employment.
However, while we are aware of his recent lapse of mortality, he is not. He searches for a new job, following much of the same lifeless routine he has followed in his actual life. He lands a position at the publishing conglomerate known as Heaven Books, a huge complex out in the wastelands of suburbia (any comparisons to Harlequin & Don Mills are likely intentional, as the author worked for Harlequin for a while).

The prose itself reflects the deadened, muffled thoughts encouraged by the constraints Gordon faces while working away in a little office . He seems to be the only one who becomes aware that everyone there is in fact dead. He tries to tell everyone, to get people to believe him, but that only shakes things up and puts him under watch. He finally uses the format of the romance novels that he is editing to send out a final message to the ex-girlfriend (now very successful romance writer herself) who he has left behind. It's a scene that seemed to me to imply that the romance genre is a way readers convince themselves of their existence, through an addiction to reassurances of physicality. Or maybe it was just Gordon's one good idea.

I liked this one; the conceit was interesting and the minutiae of office life was so perfectly drawn -- even the staff room fridge has its place in inter-office politics. However, I didn't quite fall in love. The long scenes of office drudgery made me feel like I was watching another episode of The Office, while the set-up of Heaven being a kind of purgatory sometimes felt to me to be the main focus, all the details having to fit that Idea rather than a more organic storyline. But that's just me -- I lent this one to a friend right after I finished and she thought that part of it was great. Still, I have a hard time reading books that are this dependent on a specific conceit; half my mind is always trying to figure out the details - do they eat? (yes) do they excrete? (no) Is everyone in the same boat? (uncertain)

The writing itself is enjoyable, as the author is an accomplished writer and poet; some of the lines and images are startlingly poetic and memorable. It was a good read that I could admire and respect even if it didn't grab my emotional heart and make me love it. The conclusion is a gorgeous set piece, with images still resonating in my mind. But again, in retrospect, I was puzzled by how the actions of the conclusion fit in with the afterlife 'rules' set out throughout the book. So, if you want to have a fling with a clever and attractive book, do try it. This one, however, was not a marriage of true minds for me.

Other opinons:

JK of Keepin' It Real Book Club had a true romance with this book

Corey of Shelf Monkey states: Gordon's quest for more than death provides is at once bewitching, witty, and terrifyingly familiar.

Remi of Gunner's Miscellany thought it was fun and well constructed though he had a minor quibble with the cover design

Emily Schultz was born in 1974 in southwestern Ontario. She studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor, where she completed her BA. Her first collection of short stories, Black Coffee Night, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Fiction in Canada, and for the ReLit Award. Heaven is Small is her fifth book.

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