Randal Eldon Greene’s novel Descriptions of Heaven is a courageous and unflinching story about the mystery at the center of human life—death—and the stories we tell to make sense of its brutal reality.
Robert, who is an academic linguist; his wife Natalia, who is an elementary school art teacher; and Jesse, their young son, live on the banks of New Bedford Pond. A creature has been filmed by a young couple at the lakeside, which brings camera crews to the area. A recent reservoir project created New Bedford Pond, which contains no fish—the very same lake where the beast mysteriously lives. The idea of this leviathan—a creature of the deep that is both seen and unseen, that is known and yet also the heart of a mystery—sets the stage for the rest of Greene’s novel.
Natalia’s cancer has been in remission, but it returns and will take her life. Robert, who studies the evolution of language, quickly gauges that words will fail to capture the essence of death. His vision of language is as ephemeral as our bodies:
I have often read that language evolves, but the way I saw it, language seemed to pass on, slowly dying, slowly replaced with a new tongue that though it appeared to be a relative of the original, was but an analogue that arose from discordant clays, primal tongues wielding words with ignorance.
Robert holds little hope that language can get to the rock bottom of our experience, let alone the experience of life after death. Language has explanatory power, but is as mutable and subject to passing away as life.
The family’s house mirrors their predicament. The prior owner, who is also the house’s architect, is now in a mental institution, having left behind a physical monument to his psychosis. Robert states that he “was paranoid and always editing the house to match his madness. There were things in our home—little hatches, escape holes, and narrow passages. There were false walls between the bedrooms. Every way in had a second way out.”
This house of concealed places, Robert continues, did not help the architect hide from “whatever demons he sought refuge from.” Later, when the architect escapes from the institution and returns to the house, he explains to Robert and Natalia that he left part of the basement unfinished, which would have been his final resting place: “Had I completed it, I never would have to leave. Not God himself could’ve caught me.”
Greene explores the arrangement of the house as a symbol for the dangerous, hidden warren that can be at the heart of our lives. During her first bout with cancer, Natalia had her ovaries removed. Robert reflects, “What floodgates did we unlatch when we let the doctors cut out that cancerous tumor tucked behind her ovaries, a tear-shaped thing of blooded veins so like a malformed neonate.” Beneath our apparent health, Robert muses frequently, hides disease.
Robert reinforces this idea by continually describing a failing natural world. A beautiful sunset is formed by “dust from the empty fields of abandoned western farmland.” Robert ponders that “spring was not just a time of life, it was a release of all things that had been frozen, and it smelled of things dead, things that had been waiting out in the snow so they could rot in the melt.” Robert explains to his father-in-law why New Bedford Pond remains without fish, despite attempts to stock the pond: “it’s hard to build an ecosystem from scratch. Hard to build health from unhealthy. Much easier to destroy that which is vital and fecund.”
Natalia is the incarnation of the destruction of this vital and fecund nature. She is a “symbol of the physical self . . . in the reified concept of nature: earth, wind, and water . . . [and yet] the girl, for all her beauty, was a mess of nature’s inharmonious imperfections.” Ultimately these imperfections lead Natalia to an early grave.
Despite Robert’s overwhelming fixation on nature and its failures, he still feels the pull to understand a life beyond death. He thinks it vital that Jesse, their child, have some idea of what will happen to Natalia after her death. Yet Robert, Natalia, and Jesse’s grandparents all have different answers, none of which are adequate to the enormity of death. The characters struggle against Natalia’s death as a leap into nothingness—the complete physical destruction of a person. Robert stares at a canvas in his wife’s studio, “a white, blank, a nothingness that lacked even the liquid emptiness of existence; this white voided representation of existence, as if the final layer had been stripped and nothing more could be peeled away.” The characters in Greene’s novel seek the solace of heaven, but fail to find the proper images to capture its essence.
After Natalia’s death, Robert does find some solace in Methodist religious rites, which he calls “worshipful acts toward God,” (part of a “sacred architectural design”) that give some shape to the formlessness of death. But Greene’s novel never lands on a firm definition of life after death. In the end, the mystery of death is paramount, and heaven cannot be described.
This is an accomplished work. Greene has addressed a great deal of material in a short space. His story is physically minimal while his prose, and the ideas and situations it conveys, are expansive. Greene does very effective work with very few pages. In the process, he has created a thoughtful and emotional novel that examines with intelligence and compassion the deepest levels of human suffering and loss.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel and short stories.