A Review of Amy Bonnaffons’ “The Wrong Heaven”
Inventive and Daring Short Fiction
What is it like to be a woman? Is being a woman a lot like becoming a horse, being able to roam wild and free? Is being a woman tied up in other women’s curses, the sort of curse that puts Alanis Morissette’s “Hand In My Pocket” stuck on instant repeat inside your head and singing the song in a solitary karaoke bar might be the only cure for this ailment? Is being a woman tied up in the friendships one has with other women, dying to know your particular secrets? Or is being a woman about having children, but not real children — pieces of hand-carved art that comes alive in your hands? Well, in a way, I suspect that Amy Bonnaffons’ debut short story collection The Wrong Heaven could be about these things. As inventive and daring as it is for blending fabulist stories with those of kitchen sink ordinariness, it is also dark and disturbing and strange and peculiar. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at times — but that might be because I’m male and Bonnaffons writes from a female point of view. Like a certain deodorant, this is strong stuff for a man, but a scent that’s really made for a woman.
The collection reminds me a lot of Anita Dolman’s fantastic collection of short stories released last year, Lost Enough, in that sexuality is fluid and strangeness is told from a woman’s point of view. The two authors share enough of a commonality that I’d say if you’ve read one of them, you should go out and read the other. In a sense, Bonnaffons’ collection reminds me a lot of Jonathan Lethem in all of his modes — genre-defying and literary — and it should be of no surprise that Lethem is namechecked in the Acknowledgements section of this book as someone who helped Bonnaffons as a writer along the way. What might be the collection’s strength or conversely its glaring weakness, is that these stories are not interconnected by style, though the themes of sexuality, religion and high art versus low art all play a part in these tales. And, yes, one of the stories is about a woman who can take a medicine to transform herself permanently into a horse.
Whether or not Bonnaffons is being conventional in substance or is willfully playing around with reality, there is a subversive element to these tales. As much as they’re told from the woman’s point of view in a fabulist world often populated and dominated by male writers, there is something amiss in the lives of the protagonists — there is a sense of the unfulfilled or yearning to be something else. In my favorite story of the batch, which is also the opening story and the piece that this collection takes its name from, a woman buys a lawn ornament featuring Jesus and His mother Mary, and when she plugs them in, discovers they are sentient and are as judgmental as heck. (The story ends with a bonfire and the cooking of smores, so there’s irrelevance for you since Jesus and His holy mother are involved. If I say anything more, I risk ruining the piece entirely.)
What makes the stories in The Wrong Heaven enjoyable, even the lesser ones (and being a story collection, like every other story collection, there are lesser stories) is that these are character studies. The characters grapple with their sexual orientation, the direction their sexual relationships are headed in, the children in their care that don’t belong to them (both in reality and in the imagination), and the very nature of kitsch. Even if you feel that a piece might be a dud, and I’ll come out and say that there were just some stories that I didn’t get, there’s something salvageable within them. You may even surprise yourself by laughing out loud at some of the dialogue or pointed observations that Bonnaffons makes. There is a sense of watching a writer mature and grow with these pieces, even the ones that might seem as though they are a half-formed thought.
What might be striking to know is that there is apparently a novel in the can from Bonnaffons that’s about the afterlife, but either the author or publisher (or both) thought it was more appropriate to lead with The Wrong Heaven. This is a daring move because short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, and, more often than not, a publisher publishes the novel first and then puts out the story collection as a stop-gap measure until the author can produce Novel №2. The fact that Little, Brown and Company and Bonnaffons are leading with the story collection first is telling as to just how much confidence they have in the material. As they should. Again, The Wrong Heaven is not a perfect read, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of all of the things that Bonnaffons is interested in: gender orientation, sex, religion, nature, art, aging and more. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of shape the novel takes based on this material — just how much of it will have literary or high-brow merit, and just how much of it has elements of the fantastic or supernatural that will place it in a lower genre.
Which raises an interesting point of sorts: The Wrong Heaven is both high and low art, but the stories blur the line between the two. While some stories are more “realistic” than others, there’s something going on here where the distinctions between literary writing and pulp pieces are often one and the same. Bonnaffons is getting a lot of comparisons to George Saunders from the publisher (though to be fair to both writers, Bonnaffons doesn’t get as playful with language as Saunders has been known to do), and that’s a pretty high compliment because Saunders toys with the notion of what makes the fantastic work in literary fiction. So there’s a lot of meat to chew on with The Wrong Heaven. The reader may ask, what is this collection made of? What does it mean to write from the margins with high aspirations? What is it like to love two things at once, whether it be high versus low art or male versus female? That’s the sort of stuff this book wrestles with, and The Wrong Heaven ultimately winds up asking all of the right questions, even if the answers are still sometimes a little out of reach.
Amy Bonnaffons’ The Wrong Heaven was published by Little, Brown and Company on July 17, 2018.
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