Heaven by Mary Gaitskill, 1988
The magic trick:
Altering the reader’s expectations and tolerance for sadness by making it plain early in the story that the youngest son dies at some point
It’s ridiculous how good a story “Heaven” is. Stupid, even.
We get the third-person telling of a family’s story over 20 years. Virginia, the mother character, is the fulcrum. It is remarkable the way Gaitskill drops hints of things not being quite right in the home. Did the father love the eldest daughter in an inappropriate way? Why was he so mean to his niece? Was there physical abuse? And what was Virginia doing cuddling with her niece anyway?
Gaitskill, as always, takes on every situation head on. Families are complicated. Families are painful. The difficult moments don’t overwhelm the story, though. For one, the pace of the unfolding events is way too fast to dwell on any single concern. Before you can worry much, there’s something else to celebrate or mourn. Which is just like life.
And it’s not like there aren’t consequences. This family suffers catastrophes that can be traced back to those aforementioned difficult moments. There just aren’t those obvious, direct connections between cause and effect that make for neat reading. Again, this story is more like real life.
Finally, and I’d say this is the true magic trick, I’ll mention that the reader learns very early on that one of Virginia’s sons dies. Soon thereafter, we learn that it’s her beloved Charles. This gives Gaitskill tremendous control over the reader. She knows now that we will read the entire story waiting for the awful tragedy. This totally reshapes the reading experience.
Speaking for myself, I then took in the family’s series of personal catastrophes as maybe less dire than I would have before because now I viewed them as minor details when compared to the impending death of Charles. Additionally, when we do learn of Charles’ death, it doesn’t feel like a crushing blow it might have seemed early in the story because by now there was a whole assortment of various family disasters that, while all admittedly more manageable than the death of a child, gave the tragedy more context.
Anyway, it’s brilliant. I’m not doing this story justice in my breakdown. It’s a brilliant, brilliant piece of fiction. And that’s quite a trick on Gaitskill’s part.
Virginia and Jarold became very quiet together. They still watched late-night movies, but they rarely sat cuddled together. Jarold got tired early and went upstairs to bed. He was always asleep when Virginia came up.
Sometimes she thought Jarold looked obtuse and stupid. At breakfast, when he bent over the paper, he frowned so hard that his mouth pulled his entire face downward and he looked like a shark. His eyes were disapproving. His eyes became blunt as a snout.
She knew that he thought his children were failures.
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