Comic? Yes. Spiritual? No

By  Rebekah Arthurs, Catholic Register Special
  • May 15, 2009
{mosimage}Heaven is Small by Emily Schultz (House of Anansi Press, 256 pages, $29.95).

In her comic novel Heaven is Small, Toronto author Emily Schultz takes a light-hearted approach to the hereafter. At the outset the protagonist, Gordon Small, has just died — “an event he had failed to notice” — and he seeks new employment as a proof-reader of romance novels at the Heaven Book Company. 

Although the novel is creative, it does not offer any serious reflection on life after death.

As Gordon goes through stacks of romance novels in the office towers of the Heaven Book Company, he is tormented by memories of his ex-wife Chloe. Both had been authors, but only Chloe was successful. Her fame drove the two apart.

{sa 0887842232}One night, Gordon sees Chloe on television speaking about her latest book, which she says was inspired by the death of her ex-husband. Realizing he is dead, Gordon sets out to alert his co-workers to the fact they are dead as well. He also resumes his writing career, mailing poetry to literary magazines in the land of the living. Eventually, Gordon comes up with a plan that could tie the loose ends of his life together and unravel the threads of the Heaven Book Company.

Heaven is Small offers some thoughts on mortality. Gordon wonders how long it takes “to shake off the trauma of your own mortality” and gains a new appreciation of life after he discovers that he is dead.

Attempting to fit Gordon’s experience into a Christian understanding of life after death, one runs into difficulty. Gordon does not seem to be in heaven or hell. His opportunities to deal with his insecurities and forgive his ex-wife make the Heaven Book Company seem more like purgatory. It is, however, a rather unusual purgatory in which one moves on to obliteration rather than salvation. Schultz only alludes to Christian beliefs on a few occasions. In one of Gordon’s poems, Jesus e-mails him, trying to sell him a watch. At another point in the novel, Gordon engages in a kind of anti-creation. He spends six days telling his oblivious co-worker that she is dead, and “on the seventh day, Gordon rested.”

The world Schultz has created is a disturbing reflection of our own society. The Heaven Book Company offers routine, socialization and a system of rewards and punishments for wandering souls while driving a booming economy. Employees can no more question the rules than children can question their teacher’s instruction to go outside for recess. In this dystopic afterlife, human habits persist. Gordon and his co-workers eat, drink, blink and go to the bathroom even though they no longer need to. Their personalities, attachments and addictions endure.  

In many respects, Heaven is Small is about worlds people create for themselves – the world of the 9-to-5, the world of romantic fiction and so on.

(Arthurs is a Toronto freelance writer.)

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