The Wrong Heaven
Little, Brown, 2018
The Wrong Heaven is Amy Bonnaffons debut book, a collection of ten short stories embracing a species of magical realism often feeling more genuine and true in its humor than any realist fiction with its pretensions of drama. This is to say, these stories are speculative but so well controlled we almost miss the fact they are reassuring us there are are no explanations for our disconnect or connections in our ordinary world, rather only the experience of each state to illuminate the other.
Unlike the meandering nonsense of many and most male fiction, Bonnaffons is able to keep her prose from becoming enamored with itself and leaving the reader to collect whatever pleasure an unwilling voyeur can glean. What readers gather from the short stories of The Wrong Heaven is a casual dissonance, a twist in perception causing the narrators to bring themselves (and, therefore, by proxy us) to unsettling truths. It is the easiest maneuver to deflect spiritual anxiety through sexual dilemma (real or manufactured) as we see in ‘Black Stones’ where a dying woman is visited by an angel of death:
“I want you to stay,” said Sarah. “I want to suck your cock.”
“I know,” he said. He glanced down with a slight shrug, as if to acknowledge, who wouldn’t? “You can, eventually. And then, when you’re ready, I’ll perform intercourse with you, and you’ll die. But everything has to happen in a certain order. That’s what they told us, anyway.”
“this is a stupid system,” she said, bitterly.
He stared at her for a moment. “Maybe,” he said. “But it’s the only one there is. The only one I know of, anyway.”
She closed her eyes, because it hurt to look at him. She kept them closed until her pain returned; when she opened them, he was gone.
In ‘Horse’ a woman enduring IVF is paralleled by another’s attempt to turn herself into a horse via injections or in the opening eponymous story where a school teacher discovers her Jesus and Virgin Mary lawn ornaments talk to her in language both common and esoteric we see similar deflection.
What are readers to make of this, Bonnaffons fondness for religious iconography, female sexuality, and near desperate desire to transcend the mundane world? Again, the easiest response is that the stories are imaginative and unsettling but such a description does nothing to extend or deep our understanding. We need to admit these stories are subversive, masked by their fabulist style and ordinary tone to push readers into ruminating on gender, sex, and religion. Through her seemingly effortless and thus clearly controlled and finely crafted prose, Bonnaffons is able to sink readers into character studies where kitsch dissolves into longing and longing reveals the cost (emotional, mental, and practical) of asymmetric power. The Wrong Heaven is an exceptional debut and one of the best short story collections you’ll read.
About the Author
Amy Bonnaffons’ debut story collection THE WRONG HEAVEN was published in July 2018 by Little, Brown. It will be followed in early 2020 by THE REGRETS, a novel about the afterlife. Bonnaffons is a founding editor of 7×7.la, a literary journal devoted to collaborations between writers and visual artists. Born in New York City, she now lives in Athens, GA, where she is working on a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia.