Because Kate’s anomalies had now spawned enigmas, discrepancies, holes in the fabric of Kate. It wasn’t that she was crazy, or not like any crazy girls he’d known before. She didn’t weep; she didn’t scream. She wasn’t hyperemotional. If anything, she was all too sanguine–wore the same clothes for days on end and forgot to brush her hair and was perfectly content. . . . But there was also the incident where Kate told Ben a story about an ex-Green Beret who had climbed the White House fence and broken into the White House and bearded the president and the First Lady in bed, and instead of calling for the Secret Service, the president called downstairs for tea, and they sat drinking tea in the president’s bedroom and discussing the treatment of veterans, and the man became the president’s personal friend. She couldn’t remember which president. It had happened sometime in the nineties.
I found Sandra Newman’s The Heavens really engaging until I started getting confused about how exactly it worked, about what the essential conceptual links were between its variable pasts and presents. It is, definitely, a high-concept novel, one that invites that kind of probing: it’s clear that Newman is using the elements of her genre-bending time-traveling speculative historical dystopian romantic novel to say something–lots of things, probably–rather than simply as plot devices. If I understand her at all, some of these things are about the better alternatives we can imagine to the world we actually live in. Some of them are about how to get to that world we would have to, or have had to, make different choices, including about what, or who, or whose stories, we value most.
What I couldn’t ultimately hang on to, though, was why exactly Shakespeare is somehow placed at the center of this project. Is the novel a critique of something exemplified, maybe, by what is sometimes called ‘Bardolotry,’ so that Sad Will (as Kate, or, rather, Emilia, knows him) is present more as a symbol than a character? Is the notion that our fixation on individual accomplishment and fame–what we routinely but perhaps sloppily, think of as ‘genius’–crowds out other kinds of achievement that might lead to better communal futures? If that’s the idea, I feel as if I should be more certain of it, as well as clearer about why Emilia Lanier is the specific device Newman chooses to set up that implicit argument.
I also didn’t understand the relationship between Kate’s specific choices in the past and the outcome she hopes for from them. She believes (or Emilia believes) that she has some kind of mission to save the world, but as the novel wound on I got more confused about the nature of that mission and the metaphysics that presumably make sense of it, never mind how she and we are supposed to get from what she does then to what happens now. (It probably didn’t help my attempts to never mind all that and just go along with Newman’s unexplained model of time travel that I’ve been proofreading my husband’s book on determinism, which includes compelling arguments about the logical consequences of any speculative ‘what if’ re-imaginings of the past.) Newman is writing fiction, so she doesn’t necessarily have to meet a stringent philosophical standard, but there wasn’t even enough narrative coherence to her version to hold doubts at bay. As far as I can remember it, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (to which The Heavens has inevitably been compared) is every bit as metaphysically confusing and implausible but was at least an intensely gripping story.
By the end, then, my appreciation had become quite fragmented. Newman does some things really well, and I was able to sustain an interest in the love story that threads through the novel as well as in the various versions of their ‘now,’ each of them a bit worse than the last but all vividly recognizable. The 9/11 section in particular had a grim emotional intensity without sentimentality or sensationalism. The historical novel that is Kate’s dream life (or whatever it is rightly called) as Emilia is also really well done–again, vivid, specific, and tense. The question of whether Kate is mad or actually somehow having experiences outside of linear time is well handled, often painfully as those around her try to secure her in what they believe to be the only reality. I just couldn’t sort out my thematic and conceptual confusions well enough to feel satisfied with the novel as a whole. That said, I’m not at my most patient and attentive right now as a reader, and it is quite possible that the fault lies not with The Heavens but with me.
Matt Keeley’s review of The Heavens is worth checking out: he is much less equivocal about it than I am, and I think he is right about all the strengths of the novel. As always, if you read this novel too I’d love to know what you thought.