“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after,” wrote Blaise Pascal, “I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there.” (Pensées, 205) The seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher expressed a point of view shared by the Psalmist (Psalm 8:3-9), though without the Psalmist’s confidence in the Creator’s providence. The vision of life under the aspect of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis, is one reflected on by poets, saints, philosophers, and astronomers, but rarely portrayed in novels. Aside from exceptions in science fiction, fantasy, and apocalyptic fiction, the settings of most novels are earth-bound. When characters die, they’re removed from the plot.
Two novelists recently have challenged the limits of fiction by figuratively unplotting their deceased protagonists. They have succeeded not only in stretching the narrative canvas vertically, sketching scenes of this world and the next, but also in rounding out the lives of their main characters in ways that engage our sympathies. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is about a young girl, and Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven is about an old man.
Each book begins with details leading up to the main character’s death. The Lovely Bones begins with a dead woman talking. In detective-report detachment, she recites the stark facts: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” Evoking the final line of T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker,” The Five People You Meet in Heaven begins with an explanation from the omniscient narrator: “This is a story about a man named Eddie, and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.” Eddie, for whom no last name is given, dies on his 83rd birthday, crushed by a fallen cart on a ride called Freddy’s Free Fall at the amusement park where he works.
After telling where and how the main characters died, relating their last words and their experiences of dying, the plots diverge. Albom’s novel shows Eddie on a journey from tableau to tableau in his heaven. He meets five people who had also died but whose lives intersected with his on earth. At each station, Eddie meets a person; he remembers what happened on one of his birthdays; he learns a lesson about human relationships, and the narrator then describes events on earth related to Eddie’s death. The focus is on reviewing Eddie’s life. “This is the greatest gift God can give you: to understand what happened in your life. To have it explained” (p. 35).
From the first person, Eddie learns, for example, that fairness does not govern life and death. “If it did,” the person tells him, “no good person would ever die young” (p. 48). Eddie is relieved to learn that though he caused the deaths of several people, his afterlife is not where he needs to pay for his sins. Along the way, he seeks forgiveness and learns that he has been forgiven by those whom he had wronged.
Near the end of the story Eddie is amazed that his heaven contains an amusement park filled with thousands of people, especially children. “They were there, or would be there, because of the simple mundane things Eddie had done in this life, the accidents he had prevented, the rides he had kept safe, the unnoticed turns he had affected every day” (p. 193).
In The Lovely Bones, Susie’s focus is not on what she learns from traveling through her heaven but on what she sees, gazing down on her earthly neighborhood from her heavenly gazebo. Confessing to being somewhat bored with heaven, she’s intoxicated by the freedom to see all that was going on at the school she had attended. Eddie cannot see earth from heaven, but Susie can. She sees, but for the most part she is unable to change events flowing from her murder. As life on earth goes on without her, she sees her family torn by the grief that rips apart her parents’ marriage, and she sees the attempts to apprehend her murderer. “I came to believe that if I watched closely, and desired, I might change the lives of those I loved on Earth,” she says (p. 20). Like Emily Webb in Our Town, Susie is granted an opportunity to return briefly to earth, but with a different outcome.
Forgiving and being forgiven are not a part of Susie’s heaven. Instead, from her heavenly vantage point, she takes vengeful pleasure in committing a “perfect murder.” Like Eddie’s tailor-made heaven, Susie’s heaven is “her heaven.” Eddie learns the meaning of his life from the five people he meets in his heaven, none of whom are Jesus or any of the saints of Christendom. In her heaven, Susie is met by Fran, an intake counselor, who offers guidance. Each heaven seems a perfect fit. In Truman Show fashion, the episodes of both books revolve around the needs of the main characters.
What most distinguishes these heavens from popular notions of heaven in the Christian tradition is not only their lack of an infernal counterpart but the preoccupation of their inhabitants with the things of earth. For Eddie the purpose of heaven is to help him make sense of his earthly existence. For Susie, at least in the first months after her death, the purpose is to oversee the shock and horror of her friends and family and help them let go of their loss and grief.
Eventually though, Susie does try to follow Fran’s counsel: “‘If you stop asking why you were killed instead of someone else, stop investigating the vacuum left by your loss, stop wondering what everyone left on Earth is feeling,’ she said, ‘you can be free. Simply put, you have to give up on Earth'” (p. 120).
The heavens of Eddie and of Susie are not the Triune God’s heaven. Nor are they the heavens of scriptural revelation, Dante’s Paradiso, or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Reflecting the preoccupations of North Americans at the turn of this millennium, the heavens in Albom’s and Sebold’s novels are not the dramas for which earthly life is the prologue. Eddie’s heaven is more like a post-football game analysis, and Susie’s is more like an ongoing commentary on a game viewed from the media booth.
Nevertheless, the fact that two novelists would take the risk to write books where the focus is on life after death is commendable. It’s a truism that authors should write about what they know. So novelists who attempt to portray unearthly settings and weave plots that are out of this world do take some risks. Their novels could be judged implausible, sentimental, or preachy.
Albom and Sebold have faced those risks, and for the most part they have avoided those pitfalls. For Albom, the lessons learned, rather than the actions of the characters, seem to drive the plot, but his intent is to instruct readers about the lessons we can learn not only from the five people Eddie meets but from realizing that the apparently insignificant interactions we have with others can carry profound meanings beyond our immediate comprehension. Sebold tells a tragic tale; its opening scene of violence searing and haunting. There is palpable relief to discover Susie is in heaven after her murder. Readers are then torn between reading slowly to savor Susie Salmon’s perceptions and quirky humor (and Sebold’s insight into the mind and heart of a teenager) and turning the pages quickly to discover whether or not the rapist-murderer is ever found and apprehended.
These are appealing stories, imaginative construals of heaven, according to these novelists, that there may be more things in heaven and earth than are spelled out in our theology (pace Hamlet). The books may both pique the certainty
of those who assume that death is an end rather than a beginning and tweak the curiosity of those whose idea of heaven might be limited to rather obscure biblical imagery. Perhaps the poets, dramatists, and novelists in our midst can help us expand our thinking when it comes to heaven.