Sandra Newman’s latest novel, The Heavens, opens at a rammed house party in a large, luxurious apartment in Manhattan. It is here, on an August evening, that Ben meets Kate. The crowd is young, international, optimistic: “New York City, so everyone was interning at a Condé Nast publication or a television program or the UN. Everyone a little in love with each other; the year 2000 in the affluent West.”
In transplanting us to this particular time period, the author sets up the reader to anticipate, on behalf of the characters, the devastating events that will unfold on the city’s skyline, just over a year later. But though Newman presents her setting and characters with beautifully described literary realism, we quickly learn that the historical backdrop is not quite what we remember: the US president’s name is Chen; carbon emissions are radically declining; and the UN is fast eradicating global poverty.
As Ben and Kate’s relationship progresses – told from both perspectives, in alternating chapters – we realise that Newman is doing something stranger than merely presenting an escapist utopia. Kate, in her dreams, frequently ventures back in time to Elizabethan England. Here, her social circle contains a budding bard with a name utterly unrecognised, in Kate’s world. Each time she wakes, she enters a ‘refreshed’ iteration of her present, governed by cultural and political conditions she has inadvertently influenced by her actions in the past.
That the activity of artistic production and consumption can have such a direct impact on how the future is shaped is an interesting proposition. And it is thought-provoking to accept, as this type of narrative requests, that the gargantuan influence, throughout the centuries, of Shakespeare – for it is he – would allow the same group of psychologically consistent New York acquaintances to exist in roughly the same circumstances and location with each of Kate’s revisits to ‘the present’. This issue is perhaps magnified by Newman’s decision to sustain rational Ben’s perspective, throughout the proceedings, in which Kate’s beliefs about her time-travelling ability are deemed to require medical treatment and hospitalisation.
Time-travel tales, such as this one – reminiscent of that ‘Treehouse of Horror’ segment of The Simpsons, itself influenced by the 1952 Ray Bradbury short story, ‘A Sound of Thunder’ –allow their author a huge degree of experimentation with world-building. In Bradbury’s text, the White House incumbent of its narrative ‘present’ does much to signpost the altered course of history, and The Heavens is clearly produced in the shadow of the current administration. The novel presents us, each time Kate wakes, with a series of slightly shifting sociological and geopolitical scenarios, which increasingly approximate our own. It so doing, Newman offers a powerful evisceration of the US healthcare system, and sharply projects forward. With necessary urgency, she conjures hellish visions for the future of humanity, and more hopeful, catastrophe-averting mechanisms of collective action. A choice, then, between the scorched landscape of ecological disaster, and the unknown reaches of human observation and endeavour. Prepare to be transported.
Words: Catherine Gaffney