In which I try to unravel the puzzle that is John Brandon’s A Million Heavens (by Jill)

IMG_3699This is another Indiespensible selection from Powell’s Books.  I wanted to love this book, and a part of me did.  It’s got things that I tend to love: multiple points of view, short chapters, and some magical realism thrown in for fun.  One of the points of view is even that of a wolf.  Are there wolves in the desert, you ask?  Why, yes, there are.  I know, I was as surprised as you are.  But there was something about it that kept me from really enjoying this book.  I don’t know if I had a hard time getting into it because I was reading it around the holidays and was distracted with other things, or if it was the book itself that was the problem.  I’ll work it out and let you know.  And guess what?  I’m going to work it out in this post!  Hooray!

I think that there were too many different points of view in A Million Heavens, to the point that they were sort of hard to keep track of.  It was almost seemed that he thought, “Well, if a couple points of view are good, then more must be better.  How about nine?”  And then on page ninety-three, he decides to start adding in backstory for one character who to that point had been in the background.  These three chapters (“History of Arn I, II, and III”) are much longer than the others, and really serve no purpose, other than to flesh out a character that didn’t really need to be fleshed out, because he was not one of the points of view up to that point.  Also, I didn’t mind him so much when he was more peripheral, but getting to know Arn better, I really began to dislike him.  I thought he was going to be a villain, but nothing comes of all the information about his wayward youth that we get in these chapters.

Oh and starting somewhere about the midway point of the book, The Trainer, The Teacher, The Rivals, The Guide, and The Freshman each get their own chapter. These extraneous folks did have a purpose in furthering the plot, unlike the digression known as Arn: each were victimized by The Wolf in one way or another.  The Wolf, in the throes of what can only be described as temporary insanity or senility, kills animals belonging, one way or another, to each of these people.  These killings are described somewhat graphically, as a warning to potential readers.  The Wolf’s chapters do mention that he is doing killing of a recreational rather than life-sustaining nature, but it was interesting to see the reactions of the people who cared for these animals finding them mutilated, and to have them described in more detail than The Wolf is capable of doing.

Some of these seemingly extraneous chapters almost strike me as the author’s attempts to stick other work that he has done into this book.  As I think about this, I feel like the book, though the threads do come together a bit at the end, almost feels like several short stories that he decided to combine into one larger piece.

I did, in fact, enjoy more of this book than I did not.  The major characters, primarily Cecelia and “Soren’s Father,” I actually enjoyed reading about quite a lot.  And Reggie the dead guy’s parts were quite good too.  So Cecelia is a college student, who was in a band.  The reason why she left the band is because Reggie, her bandmate, died prior to the beginning of the book.  She loses the desire to play guitar and falls into a depression.  Reggie is stuck in the afterlife, alone.  His chapters are interesting.  The author’s view of the afterlife does not coincide with any prior ethos I have learned about.  Where Reggie is various objects from his life on Earth come and go—a bar, a piano, a dresser, books.  Eventually the large room shrinks down until Reggie is forced to address the piano.  He had decided he would not write music, or think about it in the afterlife, but whoever is in charge (we never do find out) forces the issue.  When Reggie smashes up the piano, eventually it gets repaired.  And after some time, Reggie does start to write music again.  This music is somehow sent to Cecelia’s mind, and she records herself playing/singing it.  This gives her peace (and a fair amount of annoyance once Reggie really gets going with the song writing) as she knows they are messages from Reggie.  The Wolf hears the songs while he is on his rounds of the small New Mexico town where the characters live and begins to need to hear them.  When there are no songs for a time, he begins to feel a bit crazy, and that’s when all the sport killings happen.  I actually thought The Wolf’s chapters were pretty well done.  They were a bit anthropomorphic but not a lot.  The Wolf does not think or reason in a human way, but expresses senses and habits and observations.  Here’s a quote that will make this more clear than I can by describing it: “The nighttime clouds were slipping across the sky as if summoned.  The wolf was near the old market, a place he remembered enjoying, but he resolved not to go inside, resolved to maintain his pace, an upright trot he could’ve sustained for days.  He was off his regular route.  He had passed several lots of broken machines that weren’t even guarded by dogs and now he was crossing kept grounds—the trees in rows, the hedges tidy, the signs sturdy and sponged.  He cleared the first wing of a well-lit building, catching his trotting reflection in the mirrored windows.  His head jerked sidelong toward a parking lot and there he saw the quiet humans.  The wolf understood that he had stopped short in some sort of courtyard and he understood that these humans had snuck up on him, or he had snuck up on them without meaning to, which was the same….  The wolf couldn’t tell what these humans were doing.  A lot of knowledge was obvious to the wolf and hidden from humans, but they had their own wisdom—deductions they’d been refining for centuries, beliefs they would cling to until they could prove them (5).”  See what I mean about The Wolf’s voice?  And wasn’t that interesting and sort of beautiful?  The whole book is like that.

“Soren’s father,” whose name is never revealed that I remember or can find, is a single parent whose son falls into a coma following a piano lesson in which he plays a brilliant piece of music no one has ever heard before, then collapses.  The reasons for this coma are unknown, at least as far as we know.  The conceit of the novel is that most of the characters are drawn together in some way because of Soren’s coma.  Cecelia and Dannie attend the weekly vigils for Soren outside his hospital, and Soren’s father watches them from the hospital room window.  The Wolf is also drawn to these vigils.  Other characters are peripherally involved with these vigils.  I suspect that piece of music may have been one of Reggie’s from beyond the grave, somehow inappropriately channeled into Soren rather than Cecelia.  Soren’s father’s life and livelihood unravels throughout the book; he has a fairly successful lunch truck business at the outset, but as time passes he sells off more and more of his trucks.  He meets a nice woman but breaks things off.  His sadness about his son is palpable.  These chapters are the best in the book.

Cecelia’s chapters are also well done; her loss of her good friend Reggie has her at loose ends.  She does some crazy things in the course of her mourning, such as a friendly mugging of a man whose pool she is sitting by in the middle of the night, and sabotaging the instruments belonging to the members of the band formed by her former bandmate Nate who intends to play Reggie’s songs without her or Reggie.  All this sounds pretty sinister but these stories are told in a light-hearted manner and I felt like Cecelia is standing up for herself and becoming a better human being by doing these things.  I know it sounds weird, but I swear that’s how I felt.  You’ll need to read it and tell me what you think.

There are several more characters I don’t feel the need to get into more than superficially: Dannie, Mayor Cabrera, and The Gas Station Owner.  I don’t think their stories added a whole lot to the novel, and quite honestly I wasn’t interested in them, especially not The Gas Station Owner.  He is this old guy, probably an alcoholic, who decides to pack it all in and go off to die in the desert.  He doesn’t die, of course.  The Wolf does take a big bite out of him out in the desert, but then he gets rescued.  Mayor Cabrera is actually Cecelia’s uncle, so that made me a bit more interested in him, though his love for a prostitute who lives outside Santa Fe was a storyline that I wasn’t sure had a place in this book.  And Dannie.  It’s her fault Arn exists in this book.  Dannie is a mid-thirties person who abandons her life in LA to go live in the desert.  She hooks up with Arn and decides she is going to have his baby.  She doesn’t care if Arn is involved with said baby at first, and she lies to him on several counts, primarily about her age.  A few times.  Arn is much younger and he also lies to Dannie quite a bit.  Their whole thing just bugged me.  Baby crazy single women in their mid-thirties are not my favorite folks in real life or in fiction.  I don’t mean to offend anyone by that statement, I really don’t, and I hope I didn’t.  By all means, have a baby if you want to have one.  Adopt or get artificially inseminated or find a male friend to get you pregnant.  Don’t run away from your life, find a dude, lie to him about a bunch of things, and then try to have a baby with him, unbeknownst to him.  And for the gentlemen, don’t lie to a woman about whether or not you’re a virgin.  For God’s sake.  Is it the fifties?

This book is not without merit.  I do recommend it, but with some reservations.  It is far from perfect but there’s good writing and the characters I spent time on are well developed and likeable.  I just think that Brandon tried to do a little too much with this book and perhaps if he had tried to do a little less it would have succeeded more.  Is it a ghost story?  A coming-of-age novel?  Chick lit?  A character study of three lonely middle-aged men?  A modern day Call of the Wild?  A novel should not try to be this many things.  The author said in the interview that came with the Indiespensible shipment that he was trying to compare/contrast people who are doing nothing vs. doing something.  And that’s cool, but I think he misses the mark a bit.

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7 Responses to In which I try to unravel the puzzle that is John Brandon’s A Million Heavens (by Jill)

  1. lfpbe says:

    Your review makes this book sound kind of awful. What did you like about it? Does it have a central conflict? I couldn’t really tell from what you said. Would I like it? I get the sense that I probably wouldn’t.

    • badkitty1016 says:

      The way the book was described in the back blurb was that the central plot was Soren in the coma, and all the other characters were united through that, of just by virtue of the fact that they all live in this tiny town in New Mexico. The town is dying and that’s a subplot I opted to not get into. The book is pretty beautifully written and I did get into some of the characters stories (Cecelia and Soren’s father primarily). It was more a structure problem for me and the fact that the author was trying so hard to structure the book a certain way that he lost the thread of what the book was supposed to be about.

      I tend to think you would not like this book very much but I still think you should read it so we can discuss it.

      • lfpbe says:

        I think of that as kind of a contrived plot structure – not sure why exactly, and I guess it COULD work, but I’m kind of a purist and almost always want a traditional plot with a protagonist who wants something, obstacles in the way of attaining what he/she wants, etc. As you know.

      • lfpbe says:

        Also, it seems to me that when a highly experienced reader needs to refer to the blurb on the back of the book to identify the central plot, that plot is quite possibly not well defined enough. But maybe I’m just too picky.

      • badkitty1016 says:

        That’s a good point. The blurb was also odd in that it called the dead guy Reggie a “would-be angel, sitting captive in a holding cell of the afterlife, finishing the work he began on earth, writing the songs that could free him.” I thought there would be some mention of religion or a booming voice or some sort of emissary to the angel corps communicating with Reggie based on this, but the poor guy sits alone in the afterlife, in a room of varying size, with a piano. It’s all very existential.

  2. lfpbe says:

    Hmm… that actually sounds a bit like our concept of Purgatory.

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