Joshua Cohen with drawings by Michael Hafftka, A Heaven of Others (Starcherone, 2008)
Richard Pryor used to tell a joke about the night he came to in an ambulance after a cocaine binge-induced heart attack. Surrounded by white medics, his first frantic thought was, “Shit! They sent me to the wrong heaven!” This idea that there are multiple heavens, right ones and wrong ones, white ones and black ones, is pushed to its fantastical limits by Brooklyn writer Joshua Cohen in his dream-world novel of the afterlife. True to the author’s trademark style of high-wire breathlessness—some might say talkiness—A Heaven of Others may have the longest subtitle of any book in recent memory, even in these subtitle- happy times. The full title is A Heaven of Others: Being the True Account of a Jewish Boy Jonathan Schwarzstein of Tchernichovsky Street, Jerusalem, and his Post-Mortem Adventures in & Reflections on the Muslim Heaven as Said to Me and Said Through Me by an Angel of the One True God, Revealed to Me at Night as if in a Dream.
Cohen, author of three previous books, is best known for last year’s Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, a tireless 385-page monologue that dashes between its intertwined themes of classical music, American culture, and the fate of the European Jewry. The book made strong if quiet waves in experimental literary circles and among music writers for its daring sweep and hypnotizing prose rhythms, part Hasidic prayer and part Charlie Parker. Like Cadenza, Heaven is a challenging but rewarding read on thematic and formal levels.
The novel’s short earthly opening is set on a hot commercial street in Jerusalem, where a 10-year-old Jewish boy waits for his parents outside a shoe store. His social mirror approaches in the form of a young Palestinian boy who happens to be strapped with secret explosives. When the Palestinian boy sees the Jewish boy, he hugs him. Driven by something he doesn’t quite understand, the Jewish boy hugs the Palestinian back. Just as their four eyes squeeze tight—“like lemons”—a button is pressed; the bomb’s energy is released. What follows is the first of the novel’s wonderfully psychedelic prose supernovas. The moment of the blast, at once the moment of death and birth in the hereafter, opens a thousand doors to a slow-motion flock of flying pigs—the metaphorical meat of the slaughtered. The fleshy fractal geometry of bodies crushed and severed and splattered in every direction becomes “a huge pink hurtling, oink mad… Pigs are coming out of the woodwork.”
Along with the pigs appears a rope ladder to heaven. Alas, it turns out to be a rope to the wrong heaven, the Muslim heaven, a heaven of others, but the Jewish boy grabs it because it is there and begins to climb. As with the rest of the novel, Cohen adopts the vantage of the newly disembodied (and disemboweled) Boy, who is caught between the flying mess and the ladder that beckons him up, up and away from the blast scene.
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 phosphorescent bone to hug tight with your thighs tightened against the grease of the wind, oinked me to grab on, snouted me out to hold and hold tight, offering me to ride them out to wherever their flights might end, terminus… But I ignored them because of climbing, climbing is enough.
Once at the other end of the ladder, the Boy begins, like an ethereal Joseph K., a futile search of multiple elusive explanations. His journey takes him through deserts, oases, and valleys full of rusty nails; it is a spectral, largely soundless, beautifully distorted journey through the Muslim heaven of mirages and monsters, full of dreamlike misunderstanding and illogic. At a pit surrounded by a tire he meets the boy who killed him, and talks a sort of politics; he meets Queen Houri and her virgins, who ask him to become one of them; and he encounters a serpent in the Valley of Nails who says he can take him to Mohammed, who will hear his plea. But nothing works out in this heaven of others, and the snake lunges and falls dead, “its tongue hanging longingly out… forked in two directions different though equally nowhere, as dead as I stood.”
The scene is one of more than two-dozen illustrated by Michael Hafftka, whose haunting black and white ink drawings are often as arresting as Cohen’s language. This is the second time Hafftka, a Brooklyn-based artist with works in the permanent collection of MoMA, has worked with Cohen. They are a natural team and tempt a comparison to Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson. Just as those two challenged our idea of journalism, Cohen and Hafftka challenge our idea of literature. Call it High Jewish Gonzo for the lit journals.