To have a body, you must die, and to die, you must be a body. We like to ask ourselves how we’ll be remembered, and who will cry at our loss, and what our legacy will be. We like to imagine that after death, people will view us as we wish to be seen, despite knowing that’s not how it works at all. As trans people, our bodies are often, to put it briefly, an uncomfortable complexity. They cannot contain the multitude of who we truly are; a small spoon before an ocean. In R. E. Katz’ forthcoming novel, And Then the Gray Heaven (June 2021), Jules grapples with these realities after their lover, B, suddenly dies in an accident in their garage. As Jules seeks to lay B to rest and come to terms with their loss, B’s body and true self are combined in this cathartic story that deeply peers into how a nonbinary person views, understands, and loves another nonbinary person.
To Jules, B was so much more than their body, but at the end of it all, B’s body was all that was left. Before B dies, they are in the hospital, unconscious, on life support, and alone. Their family does not visit, and Jules is barred from entering because–as is the case with many LGBTQIA+ relationships–they were not legally recognized as family. When Jules does finally get to see B, there’s this heartbreaking scene where B looks so much smaller than Jules remembered them, and so not like B, because B was full of life and energy. Katz places a line between B’s unconscious body and B’s true self, and it wouldn’t be too much to say that B had died before their body ceased to function.
But to the hospital staff and to the police officers who show up when Jules breaks into B’s hospital room in despair, B was not B. They were someone under a dead legal name who didn’t fit into their boxes, almost like an object that could have been “tampered” with. It’s a terrifying reality for trans people, to know that we could die alone while our loved ones try to defend our identities in vain. In the end, after our deaths who we all are–trans or not–is a disjoint set of memories informed by opinions and biases and beliefs. It’s just that for trans people, there are so many more who view us as something we never were.
While Jules couldn’t recognize B in the still body on the hospital bed, nor in the 2/3s ashes that were smuggled to them by B’s brother, they found B embodied in dreams, dioramas, memories, and taxidermied animals. In one of these nigh-prophetic dreams, B is a room that breathes and dreams only with Jules’ aid. B has no body–or better yet, it would be right to say B does have one, just not one we would recognize; not one that we would gender. And on Jules’ journey to lay B to rest, they mix B’s ashes with the dirt and crushed marble that make up the ground underneath exhibits of animals in nature. B becomes the dioramas; living on through their own work of art. And as art, B defies assumptions and understanding, B just is.
I would absolutely recommend And Then the Gray Heaven to readers regardless of their gender identity, so when June 15 comes around, make sure you’ve got your copy! You can probably tell from my review alone, but I do heavily encourage LGBTQIA+ folks to keep in mind the content warnings. All that being said, this book completely devastated me without ever being too sad to continue. It’s clear to me that Katz was careful in their crafting of this story and successfully maintained the balance between interesting vignettes of Jules’ childhood, grief, often-humorous adventures, and trauma. This is a strong debut novel, and I look forward to any of their future endeavors in storytelling.
And Then the Gray Heaven by R. E. Katz
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Page Count: 148 pages
Content Warnings: Death, mourning, grief, abandonment, domestic violence, guns, family issues, The Foster Care System, grooming/pedophilia/underage relationship with a teacher/age gaps, police/law enforcement, systemic transphobia/queerphobia, systemic violence, hallucinations
A Note: Hi again folks. I could apologize for the fact that I said I’d be returning but went on another hiatus, and I could make some promises about what is to come. And trust me, I’d believe every single word. I love this blog, and I love all of the work that I have put into it. I don’t plan to do anything like leave and never return to it–you’ll get some kind of a heads up if that ever happens. I’ll be graduating from my MLIS program soon, so there’s going to be a lot of change coming up; hopefully that change will mean my energy levels will go up and I can post some more. I do want to say thank you to everyone who has been checking my blog and reading posts, because I just know I’d probably beat myself up about it if I had to watch the website stats start dropping all of a sudden. I’m going to try to post again on a normal schedule, but if not, I’ll see you when I see you.