While the concept of a heavenly afterlife is among the most widespread religious beliefs, crossing cultural and geographical boundaries, the form of that Heaven has been the subject of much speculation. From the Elysian Fields to Valhalla to the Christian Heaven of Revelations, the nature of the afterlife has been a driving force of religious imagination, inspiring a variety of faiths and informing centuries of conflict.
Among those many speculations, the possibility of multiple Heavens coexisting simultaneously and serving each of their respective believers is not a new idea, though it’s certainly still a radical one. It’s a notion that challenges the supremacy of all claims to “the one true God”. But there is a slice of literature devoted to the idea, explored in numerous interpretations. What Joshua Cohen’s A Heaven of Others introduces is the horror of being sent to the “wrong” Heaven—one that doesn’t serve one’s particular faith. For Cohen’s central character, experiencing someone else’s Heaven is not eternal reward, it’s a nightmare.
A Heaven of Others is the story of the brief life and infinite afterlife of Jonathan Schwarzstein, a young boy living in Jerusalem up until the point this book begins. On Jonathan’s 10th birthday, while on a shopping excursion with his parents, another boy of his age, a Palestinian, runs up to him on the street, embraces him in a tight hug, and detonates the explosives in his vest. The blast destroys the street, killing a number of bystanders, including Jonathan’s parents, and, of course, Jonathan and the other boy. Boldly, even audaciously, Cohen tells Jonathan’s story from the first person, with the child narrating his experiences from a post-blast perspective. From the start, the inescapable truth is that Jonathan is dead. But it’s everything that happens to Jonathan after being exploded from the world that matters here.
As Jonathan’s all-too-conscious spirit begins to explore his afterlife, first on a people-less Earth, then climbing a golden, many-spoked ladder into the sky, he quickly realizes that an error has been made. Though he can’t be sure of the reason, Jonathan guesses that it must have been the result of dying in such close quarters to the Palestinian boy, bodies mingled in the blast, and perhaps being sucked into that moment of martyrdom—but whatever the case, he realizes that he, Jonathan, a Jew, has wound up in the Muslim Heaven. Isolated and alone in death, it’s a slow realization for a child with limited experience of the living world. Only when Jonathan meets his allotment of virgin houris and they tell him to seek Mohammed for a way to correct his situation does he fully grasp the mistake. So begins the remainder of Jonathan’s journey, a mixture of clinging to the memories of his ten short years and journeying through the afterlife in an attempt to reunite with his parents and find the right Heaven.
In straight prose, this story would be blunt and maybe even trite, but the beauty of Cohen’s writing is such that the tale is scripted in a dense, frequently punctuation-less poetry. One result of Jonathan’s spirit reality is that his pronouns and am-ness have been exploded, as well. Time, space, and sense of being are rendered relative, even irrelevant, and with it much of the language we take for granted. Jonathan’s attempts to speak from this perspective and retain the memories of his life result in a stumbling, cascading delivery coupled with an omniscient vocabulary beyond the grasp of a living child. The technique allows Cohen to write in feverish and metaphorical brush strokes, making this less a novel than a litany. All of this combines to give Jonathan an easily read otherworldliness, and the confusion of his after-death situation swirls with the naivety of his childhood experiences to evoke a visceral sense of a lost soul.
With such long-form poetry, it would be easy enough for the reader to get lost in the dense passages, and the reading is often challenging in its delivery, necessitating pauses and re-reading on occasion. But the stark and surreal existence on the other side is brought to life in spooky ink drawings by Michael Hafftka, sprinkled liberally throughout the book and putting shape and form to Cohen’s descriptions. Hafftka’s drawings also work to drive home the nightmarish qualities of Jonathan’s experiences, taking Cohen’s symbolism to even more expressionistic levels with scribbled lines, bold dark shapes, and smudged, brushed features. The figures are often warped and distended, and correspond to notions of the bizarre life beyond our world.
Cohen’s work here is brave, but perhaps more notable for its lack of judgment on today’s world. Though Jonathan spends much of the story reflecting on his life on Earth, especially in remembering an obviously idolized father, the afterlife that Jonathan encounters is peppered with dangers that are amorphous and beyond anything to do with the living, including religious beliefs. Though Jonathan’s faith is tested on his journey, the resolution is deliberately vague. There’s no happy ending of being reunited with his family in a familiar Jewish Heaven to be had, because, as we slowly learn to appreciate, such things are nothing to do with Heaven’s true nature. Cohen draws attention away from religion and towards the diffusion of identity that follows from being integrally united with the totality of Creation. We realize through Jonathan that everything we are that makes us individual will be lost, and in chilling final lines, Cohen pinpoints that experience as being one of abject terror.
This is not satire, nor is it really a cautionary tale—there is nothing on Earth that can be done to change the nature of Heaven. There is not, in any real sense, a problem to be solved for which Jonathan serves as an example. Rather, A Heaven of Others is more a thought exercise, a contemplation of life’s trivialities in the face of the unknown of death, and also an affirmation of the importance of those trivialities in making us who we are as individuals—something that doesn’t last for very long, and should therefore be cherished.