AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
By Niall Williams
Warner. 310 pp. $23
"As It Is in Heaven" is a novel about true love that--after you've read a couple of hundred pages--may make you long for big drinks of gin, a series of hard nights at the meanest singles bar you know and the opportunity to kick an innocent armadillo. This thing makes "The Bridges of Madison County" sound like "The Grifters." Mushy love stuff! This thing gets the traveling trophy tiara for mushy love stuff, not just for this season but for years to come. And man, I'd hate to have to read the novel that gets the tiara after this one.
"As It Is in Heaven" is set in contemporary Ireland. Depressed Philip Griffin (in his sixties, but you'd think he was 110) is still mourning the death of his wife and daughter from a car crash long ago. He's sure he has cancer and longs to re-encounter his spouse in Heaven. (He doesn't seem to give much thought to seeing his dead daughter, though.)
He has morosely raised his awkward, deeply neurotic son, Stephen, to miserable adulthood. Stephen teaches history out on Ireland's west coast, and comes home once a month to see his father. They don't talk; their feelings are too profound for that. They play chess. His father sees immediately during this visit that Stephen has lost weight and that his chess game has gone sour. Dad concludes immediately that his son is in love. He begins to pray earnestly to God to let him live just a few more months, since he's sure that all love inevitably turns to tragedy, and he wants to help his son through his upcoming heartbreak.
Out west, where Stephen lives in a lonely cottage brushed by the raging Atlantic, he's surrounded by brutish, "ordinary" dolts whose souls have never been awakened. (There's a possible exception--a blind sailor who's come home from the sea and bought a plot of land for an opera house for the nearby village, even though the nearby villagers are far from being fans.)
Somewhat earlier than that landmark chess game between Stephen and his father--which, we're reminded several times, stands for the universal ongoing game between Love and Death--Stephen has been nagged into buying a ticket to an obscure concert in an upstairs room in the village hotel. They've had to bring in a substitute Italian violinist, Gabriella Castoldi. The forces of Death are up and running on the night of the concert: It's raining cats and dogs; Stephen swerves off the road and nearly dies. But he manages to get there, and the concert is great. The author believes in the redemptive power of art and good parties as well as true love, and he does the art-and-parties part absolutely right.
After the concert, the townsfolk feel better for days. Stephen, on the other hand, has been poleaxed. He can hardly stand on his feet, he lurches about, he takes an immediate leave of absence from his job. He attends another of Gabriella's concerts, and another, and follows her to a different Irish town, where she's been staying by herself, getting over her own heartbreak. The sympathetic greengrocer sees Stephen palely loitering in the street and tries to restore his emotional balance by feeding him a diet of plums. Soon Stephen and Gabriella meet, fall into bed and have intense (highly unspecific) sex, but, of course, she doesn't love him.
This is where you can tell a guy wrote this narrative. Gabriella--although she has to be wonderful enough to make Stephen lose so much weight that four inches of flesh comes off his chest in a matter of weeks--is "rigid" and "perfectionist" in her playing, very critical of herself and others, totally convinced that she's unable to love anyone and that all life's endeavors end in sorrow and recrimination. The reason the author gives for Gabriella's point of view is that her Italian mother had many miscarriages, her father preferred his sons and those sons turned out to be crooks. For whatever reason, Gabriella is withholding, inscrutable, sulky and remote, unhappy for the sake of being unhappy. After some weeks of hanging out with Stephen, whose idea of small talk is to croak out again and again, "I love you!," she gets sick of the whole scene and goes back to her home in Italy.
Besides that chess game between Love and Death, Niall Williams pulls out all the old Renaissance conceits about the power of love. His lovers (or Stephen at least) subscribe to the "I burn, I freeze" school. Besides that first astonishing weight loss, Stephen shivers and shakes and sickens and almost dies in his search for Gabriella. When the lovers are happy, the sun comes out in Ireland. When things go bad, the rain starts to fall. Because of the power of this love, other, "ordinary" people can divine ideas and dialogue from characters who are miles away. Strange that Stephen, who's a catalyst for these phenomena, can't pick up that his father is dying.
Who's going to be mean enough to bad-mouth a love story? Who's going to root for Death in this particular ongoing chess game? It's a terrible position to have to take. But the author's characters here are so impossible that it's hard not to work up an enthusiastic dislike for the whole bunch. The father, as he begs for painkillers, pitifully repeats: "It's for my son. He's in love." (Although the son, wandering around Europe after mopey Gabriella, doesn't call his father for weeks.) Gabriella, although pregnant by now, keeps droning on about how she can't love anybody. Stephen just suffers and suffers some more. You want to take these two, force-feed them a hefty dose of Paxil and buy them a one-way trip to Arizona, where the sun is going to shine whether they're in a bad mood or not.
I could go on some more about the insufferable solemnity of this narrative, the pretentiousness, the insulting condescension to common folk who aren't in "love," but it would be beating a dead horse. Everybody certainly hopes that Love is stronger than Death. But you don't have to murder the language to make that point.
Upcoming in Book World
The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:
* THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS, by Wayne Johnston. This leisurely novel focuses on the lifelong relationship between a Newfoundland politician and a journalist. Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle.
* O CARELESS LOVE: Stories and a Novella, by Susan Dodd. Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone.
* THE PLOT TO GET BILL GATES: An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man . . . and the People Who Hate Him, by Gary Rivlin. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.
* THE SHEPHERD KINGS, by Judith Tarr. In this historical fantasy, ancient Egypt allies itself with Crete against Asian invaders. Reviewed by Brian Jacomb.
* FOREVER ENGLAND, by Beryl Bainbridge. A portrait of six families in modern Britain, by a distinguished novelist. Reviewed by Carolyn See.