A boy lies in a coma, having slipped from the waking world during a freak recital of virtuosic technique at the piano. Soren had never been musically inclined, but suddenly executed a sixteen-second flurry of sonorous, heartfelt genius. "There was surrender in it," Soren's piano teacher describes. "Surrender to forces the boy knew nothing about." Meanwhile, Soren's father lurks helplessly around the hospital room, waiting for a sign of life from his sick son. Outside, a vigil gathers, crowded together in the shared belief that Soren was the recipient of some heavenly message. Among them is Cecelia, a guitarist mourning her recently deceased bandmate, Reggie.
Soren and the vigil begin John Brandon's episodic and prismatic new novel A Million Heavens, but the story quickly widens to include a broad cast of equally lost characters. In short, roughly three-page sections, Brandon guides his readers through the muted and malaised lives of Cecelia, Soren's father, and many more, stretching his net across the entire town of Lofte, New Mexico. Brandon doesn't limit his prose to those living in response to Soren's coma and Reggie's death: the novel frequently checks in with a massive, sentient wolf that roams the streets of Lofte, and also spends time with Reggie himself, stuck in a room in the afterlife.
A Million Heavens is not a book to surrender to but one to cautiously follow. It's certainly a captivating and alluring read, but Brandon's technique as a storyteller might make some readers more suspicious of his prose than enamored with it: many decisions Brandon makes with his characters and his novel's structure are much more perplexing than anything else. One character suddenly commits arson with as much flippancy as another suddenly decides to become a father figure. On an architectural level, Brandon is often carried away by his own spastic spotlight and allows too broad a cast to take the lead in his novel. It becomes fairly clear that Cecelia belongs in the center of A Million Heavens, that her story is the one that will outlast the rest of the novel's ensemble, Yet, Brandon's stuck with his novel's original, episodic conceit, and brings his readers to often to characters like "The Gas Station Owner" and inexplicably recounts a many-page, three-part history of Arn, a shlubby boy who certainly doesn't deserve more attention than Cecelia. What was once an interesting technique for building a community begins to feel like something closer to channel-surfing when there's only a few things on worth watching.
"He might be in a good place. He might have a view of a distant bay full of burnished boats, none of the boats having a thing to do with him, all owned by strangers and visitors. In this place, every person has a strong heart and a share of important work do to. In this place, the future placidly becomes the past. In this place, each person feels the dignified solitude of one engaged in a lost cause. And there were realms sweeter than this, realms that would suit Reggie precisely, that Cecelia could never envision."
Brandon does deserve accolades for his restrained handling of the great beyond. For a book so focused on grief and letting go, there is a refreshing lack of angels, white clouds and grey beards in this novel. In fact, Brandon's down-to-earth invocation of the human spirit almost imbues his entire cast with a subtle purpose, despite their uninspired presence on this mortal coil. While some of Brandon's decisions in A Million Heavens might frustrate readers, his work with the novel's spiritual motifs is remarkably successful. Without a heavy hand, Brandon's crafted a novel at once otherworldly and relatable, sobering in the simplicity of its synthesis.