Book Review: The Heavens by Sandra Newman

February 12, 2019

In an essay adapted from a lecture delivered at the New York Public Library in December 2008, Zadie Smith once wrote an impassioned defense of Barack Obama’s seemingly equivocating nature by invoking, rather peculiarly, William Shakespeare. “For reasons that are obscure to me,” she wrote, “those qualities we cherish in our artists we condemn in our politicians…The apogee of this is, of course, Shakespeare: even more than for his wordplay we cherish him for his lack of allegiance. Our Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing; he is black and white, male and female—he is everyman.” Like Shakespeare, Smith argued, Obama had done what people often must: equivocate. And for Smith, that is necessary to really see contradiction, “to speak truth plurally.”

As Smith’s version of a high-minded prodigy can attest, there are as many versions of Shakespeare as there are ways to skin a cat. After all, the elusive character remains in large part a mystery mostly because literary scholars can’t quite agree on him, even if most cede Smith’s point about Shakespeare’s “irreducible complexity.” But I’ve never encountered a version like the Shakespeare in Sandra Newman’s latest book, “The Heavens.” Newman’s ‘Sad Will’ is a bit of a bumbling, high-falutin fellow, introduced cheekily as “masculine and morose; a Will that had seen bad weather.” He’s a scatter-brained time-traveler with some traits in common with the novel’s protagonist, Kate, a woman who pulls double-duty in both the 21st and 16th centuries through her dreams: a turn of the millennium Kate whom everybody has long dismissed as more than a little looney, and Emilia, the mistress of a nobleman living in Elizabethan England, who falls in love with William Shakespeare.

Hard as it might be to believe, Shakespeare is a relatively minor presence in “The Heavens,” one of many strange things in this changeling of a novel. Here you have a Mexican Navy SEAL, José, obsessed with a post-apocalyptic world; a pregnant, ex-mail-order bride humanitarian who looks like an “ostrich light bulb” and makes films; and most bizarrely of all—a United States where Chen, a female Green Party candidate, wins the 2000 presidential election. But one may be forgiven for thinking all this refers to a different book entirely. After all, the novel’s synopsis suggests a far more hackneyed premise than what actually plays out. Two young people, Ben and Kate, meet at a gathering in New York at the large apartment of Sabine, a “rich girl who bank-rolled left-wing political movements.” It is a lovely summer night in the year 2000. It’s the perfect meet-cute. Ben and Kate fall in love.

That is only the beginning, though, because the thing about Newman’s prose is that the moment one feels solid ground, it slips away underfoot. “The Heavens” is a novel with so many premises, in fact, that the permutations of those we read feel a bit dizzying and sometimes even a bit disappointing because they inevitably mean we won’t have time to cover more. In comparison, Ben and Kate’s little love story is rather dull. It’s the context that matters. Of Ben’s first expression of love with Kate: “that intoxicated moment not only of first love, but of universal hope, that summer when Chen swept the presidential primaries on a wave of utopian fervor, when carbon emissions had radically declined and the Jerusalem peace accords had been signed and the United Nations surpassed its millennium goals for eradicating poverty.” This version of 2000 appears as a sun-kissed little coda to a chapter giddy with love. Needless to say, it doesn’t last long.

The whole edifice upon which Newman’s changing premises are built is Kate herself, who has dreamed herself as another person all her life—but who, obviously, no one believes. To everybody, she’s a girl who gets reality and dreams all mixed up, is probably schizophrenic, and under a lifelong delusion that she has the power to change what reality she wakes up in as Kate, with the choices she makes as 16th century Emilia. We get some expository backstory on Kate from her childhood friend Sabine, and a through-line of Ben and Kate’s relationship, but what’s most intriguing about it all is how easily Newman convinces us that Kate is entirely in the right. The reality she wakes up to and the reality Ben and Sabine and José are in does indeed keep changing. This is often very funny, as when Kate is puzzled by Americans’ admiration of soldiers. “But why would anyone admire him for being in the army? That can’t be a thing,” Kate protests, and soon thereafter, even more comically: “But the American army…doesn’t it just…bomb peasants from the air? Or it did, when it even did anything.” For the most part, though, it’s very troubling, particularly for Ben, whose dour, self-righteous hand-wringing about Kate’s mental state is patronizing in all realities. Kate’s impossible predicament—that her decisions as Emilia are making the world significantly worse but nobody believes her—is, by contrast, quietly heartbreaking.

Any ordinary writer can create a world where mind-bending time-travel and flights of fancy are basically the same thing, and most could also elevate the simple banalities of romance in modern-day New York with elegiac party tricks. But few could credibly grant a pitied girl like Kate with staggeringly convincing world-historical agency, and even fewer, I suspect, would choose to abandon vague lyricism for realism in such a situation. Newman is as far as one can be from a ponderous writer. The feint that Kate’s delusion is real is impressive in how plainspoken it is. Some realities are tucked away but hinted at with Kate’s frequent befuddlement: The world still uses oil? Countries still make nuclear weapons? Pangolins haven’t infested New Delhi? Other realities, like Emilia’s, simply adapt to expectations; the dialogue changing from the direct contemporary to fanciful euphuisms. On the “slowness of a country place,” one character remarks, “Why, even the plague neglecteth us here; it hath spied us from the road and scorned our dullness.” It’s a peculiar sort of alchemy that renders Elizabethan England so natural; one where pronouncements like “But, good my lord, is not all life beneath the heavens an idleness?” flow smoothly to a sweating Kate waking up in Ben’s arms, thinking, “I have to go back. I’m no use here at all.” It all hinges on Kate’s agency—the dreams her strongest when she is in love or heartbroken—that nobody believes she has.

In lesser hands, this would all be rather tedious—for the casual reader, for the non-Shakespearean scholar, the language of Emilia’s world would be disastrously overwrought. Good thing then that Emilia moves with more electricity than ten Elizabeth Bennets. She is both black, and Jewish—in that sense, “The Heavens” may be seen as cognate with Smith’s “White Teeth”—a key aspect of her that insists on further commentary. Kate decides that romancing Sad Will is integral to saving the world because in the reality where Shakespeare never wrote or never became famous, Al Gore won the presidency—and “of course, Chen was better than Gore”—though she can’t figure out what the big deal is: “He would write a world-changing play? It seemed like grasping at straws.” Still, Emilia must do the best she can not to wound Will’s ego for the plan to work. “Thy verses are wondrous fair,” Emilia tells Will. “’tis as if sugared raindrops fell into my mouth.” The two love affairs, to Kate’s growing realization, are transformative more on a global than a personal scale. In the first of a particularly breathless two chapters, Kate tells Ben she would understand if he wanted to break up, and he does. In the second, Emilia begins a torrid affair with Shakespeare. Newman is in equal parts earnest and mischievous. Will says to Emilia, “I would keep thee here and be not alone,” and then Emilia and Will “fucked to the courteous hootings of owls.” Via Emilia, Kate experiments; she plays with sex, she plays with suicide—and Kate desperately wakes up, to look at the world around her, winding up dismayed and confused as to the proper corrective for all her butterfly effects.

That is all to say: if one accepts the central conceit that Kate is not, in fact, mentally ill and that the novel is being literal, then one sees Kate less as a vehicle for a story about romance in New York and more as a political determinant. Crucially, there are two high-wire acts Newman is working with. The first is the more obvious: “The Heavens” is a parable about the tenuous relationship between delusion and reality, and what things must mean from the perspective of psychosis. The second is less so: it is an allegory that isn’t about mental illness alone but about something on a far grander scale. Kate has a destiny. In one reality, she winds up being “distracted by the war with Iran. She was speaking at protests and having eggs thrown at her and writing op-eds…Then the Save America Act was passed, and her assets were frozen because the State Department said she was bankrolling terrorism.” Ben, on the other hand, is more of an obstacle than one half of a tragic romance—“Kate would cower and sob…Ben would be exposed as a monster after all. It happened every time.”

This is, I suspect, a book about the palliative, historic effects of self-actualization—or more simply, about the power of agency that speaks truth singularly even as it speaks in different tongues. In sharp contrast to Zadie Smith’s notion that great art equivocates, Newman writes a novel that argues quite the opposite. Unlike Smith’s Shakespeare, Newman’s is an arrogant fool. Madly singing Tom o’Bedlam over and over with his acting troupe—a trifling pawn in the world-historical design of things—this Shakespeare is for some reason important to the world, and in this marvelous novel, that rather beggars belief.

Publisher: Grove Atlantic

Publication Date: February 12th

by Kamil Ahsan



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