A Heaven of Others by Joshua Cohen
Imagine if suicide bombers’ victims were sent directly to the Islamic heaven the terrorists themselves were trying to enter. This is the premise of Brooklynite Joshua Cohen’s novel A Heaven of Others, which was written in 2004 and is being re-released by Starcherone Books. The very short novel is written from the point of view of a 10-year-old Israeli boy who is blown up by an Arab terrorist of similar age. He’s buying shoes with his “Abba” and “the Queen” (which is what he calls his mom), when he is “hugged” by an Arab boy, and then explodes. He climbs a ladder into nothingness, and eventually comes up under what he thinks are the streets of Jerusalem. But he is actually in the Islamic conception of heaven, the wrong heaven, a heaven of others.
When he is greeted by the customary virgins that some believe martyrs are promised in the Qur'an, the boy says that they are no substitute for his mother. His journey is reminiscent of Dante’s trek through Hades, with the expected virgins, river of honey, valley of nails, and the whole scriptured shebang. While he’s searching for Muhammad, he meets the boy who blew him up. The terrorist insists he blew up a different boy, insinuating that a Jew could not possibly be there in the Muslim’s Paradise. The Israeli boy is not wanted, not even by the desert nature of this heaven; he is “scrutinized by the sun” and he is “hated by even the wind.”
Written in a swirling, stream of consciousness style, the narrative sometimes gracefully soars to poetic heights and at other times descends into banal modernist thought flow. This stylistic choice is the novel’s mistake. Once innovative, the breathless, run-on paragraphs without punctuation trying to capture the inner monologue are now alienating and archaic. It’s not simply that this technique has been done, but, practically speaking, the prose is watered down by such meandering. It becomes boring.
...Aba said I was nervous it being the third mohel’s first bris yours I mean being the first er putz the Rav ever cut though all turned out fine better for you that for me I mean what with the amount of drinking I did even after it was over and you were back to bed sleeping soundly Aba said as you should be sleeping right now it’s so late and so instead tonight that night I mean to say he my Aba told me no story at all...
To say maturation to infinity means an evolution beyond who were born to be. Means a boiling to the point of air. Means an assimilation to the sky and its vault.
If Cohen would have stuck with the latter style of short, powerful sentences, the novel as a whole would have been more successful. Though the wordplay is artistic, the ideas are what drive the book and keep it interesting. Cohen seems most interested in the idea that there are separate heavens for each religion, and that these “places” are localized neither in space or time, but rather in the believers’ minds who create these heavens. Some of the book’s most poignant lines are when the protagonist states that “to be religious in heaven is to be truly fanatic,” since “there is no more reward.”
However, the author seems to forget that his character is only 10 years old, and is probably ignorant of the peculiarities of an Islamic heaven, much less of the Hellenism and Gnostic theory that he contemplates. Cohen has a great idea, but unfortunately the novel is undeveloped in both vision and execution. After all, Dante didn’t rush through the Inferno.
A Heaven of Others by Joshua Cohen