In her fourth novel, The Heavens, Newman’s sparky sensibility is given the grandest of backdrops. It’s a story set between many worlds and times, but chiefly Elizabethan England and early noughties New York... It’s one heck of a pitch, and in the hands of any other writer could wind up gimmicky, but Newman’s genius lies in balancing these timelines and worlds so finely that the whole thing is seamless – not to mention lots of fun. The narrative darts around deftly and the bursts of archaic language are playful and tender... [T]he novel is a study of creativity – its importance and worth, but also how it separates creators from their loved ones (as when WB Yeats “hid his face amid a crowd of stars” in “When You Are Old”). If The Heavens offers any conclusions, it’s that the world may be going to hell in a handcart, but we’re in it together for the ride. How long we hang on – individually and collectively – is the ultimate, heartbreaking, bitterly dynamic question.
The Heavens is Sandra Newman’s eighth book. It follows novels featuring, variously, sex addiction, Buddhism and a post-apocalyptic teen dystopia; a memoir; a handbook on how not to write a novel; and two irreverently erudite guides to the canon. The variety of these accomplishments indicates Newman’s roving and playful intelligence, together with a kind of wilful unpredictability and a deep engagement with literary forms and traditions.... Playfully, it illuminates the tragedy of our age and of all the ages that precede it, and the hopeless nobility of trying to save the world. It is (and I should interject that I am not readily pleased, still less astonished) a truly astonishing work, capable of eliciting from even the most jaded reader both a kind of startled surprise and an unqualified admiration.
There’s no doubting [Newman's] spirit of invention — nor her willingness to be weird. Her sentences, like her characters, arrive in odd places... The surreal comic tone has a lot in common with hipster authors such as Elif Batuman, Patrick deWitt and Ottessa Moshfegh. When the terrorists do attack, the melodrama of the falling towers is deftly balanced with bathetic wit. And she keeps you guessing. Is this a story about mental illness? Or how humans are destroying the planet? Or a satire on that impulse to believe we are “the most important person in the world”...Newman allows for all these interpretations — and it’s fun to join the dots. My problem is that I never felt enveloped by The Heavens. The characters are at too many removes and the narrative lacks emotional contours. Despite the intricate beauty of its sentences and its subtle, unexpected observations, it never transcends its agglomeration of whimsy. In the end, it was the small pleasures that sustained my interest, which in some ways is apt. If any message can be extracted from The Heavens it’s that if we want to save our world, small changes can have profound consequences.
Hefty questions about identity, race, mental health and how we use history to make sense of the present are all thrown into the mix. There is a lot going on. Some elements, at least, are engaging. As Kate loses her grip on reality and Ben insists she seek help, the tension between Ben’s needs and his loyalty to Kate comes into sharp relief. And, impressively, for all the shifting ground, Newman still manages to bring her many characters into focus. It’s unfortunate that these earnest and idealistic millennials are such an intensely unlikeable bunch that their company offers few rewards. A high tolerance for gimmicky inventiveness is also needed. Without it, returning to the real world comes as a relief.
In these utopian scenes, and throughout Sandra Newman’s new novel, there is an exquisitely calibrated strangeness. We confront both a recognisable New York, where wealthy socialites cultivate bohemian darlings, and a counterfactual fairyland, outlandishly benign but expertly tricked out. It’s plausible, just about. And it’s heartbreaking. Because here in 2019, opening the newspaper is like abseiling into the Ninth Circle. We can’t deal with this right now. We all have anxiety.