Heaven is excruciating. Readers share viscerally in the protagonist’s victimization at the hands of sadistic bullies. Fans of Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami’s first novel published in English in 2020, might be expecting another women-centered narrative. Heaven is radically different. This time, an unnamed male narrator describes his appalling position in the social hierarchy of his junior high school.
Heaven’s bullying is all the more real to the reader because of Kawakami’s descriptions, vividly rendered into English by translators Sam Bett and David Boyd: when bullies kick the protagonist in the head, the sky cracks open, a shockwave bursts into infinity, and a silver light flashes before his eyes like a rogue flame.
But though the graphic bullying is the novel’s context, at its heart is an enduring question: what does a human being make of suffering?
The protagonist’s response to the bullying by Ninomiya and “his crew” is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. He describes himself as “helpless”, a person who “[can’t] do anything” because “nothing would change”. Bullying is so pervasive it is an expected part of his day and passes almost without comment:
At the end of June, the rain came all at once. If you tried opening a window for fresh air, the moisture filled the room. Everywhere was just as stuffy as the school. During art class, Ninomiya said let’s make a railroad, and he told his friends to hold my fingers while he shot staples into my palm. The little holes they left stung worse than bees. Dark clouds hung in the sky for days.
At the root of the narrator’s powerlessness lies a conviction that he is ugly and unworthy. He has a lazy eye that he believes mars his physical appearance; he thinks of it as “disgusting” and “like a slimy deep-sea fish from a hidden world”. His classmates nickname him “Eyes” with cruel intent, though the moniker is a good fit for a character that is more of an observer than a participant in his own life.
Kojima, another victim and the narrator’s only friend, approaches their suffering instead with an almost religious fervor. She tries to explain her point of view to the narrator in what could be interpreted alternately as Buddhist nondualism or Orwellian prose: “living with weakness, accepting it completely, that’s the greatest strength in the whole world.”
On an idyllic afternoon, Kojima takes the narrator to an exhibit of modern art. She wants to show him a painting of two people eating cake, her private vision of “Heaven”:
Something really painful happened to them, something really, really sad. But know what? They made it through. That’s why they can live in perfect harmony. After everything, after all the pain, they made it here. It looks like a normal room, but it’s really heaven.
For Kojima, heaven is the promise of a relationship defined by shared suffering overcome. And that vision is her only solace: “I have to believe,” she says, “that’s some kind of god, who sees everything that happens, and understands the meaning of everything we’ve been through, when everything else is over”.
Kojima’s devotion to her heaven becomes increasingly self-destructive. She wishes divine retribution on her classmates; if her classmates learn to suffer, it would be enough to justify her life. On her person, she takes on the outward markers of zealot, eventually giving up both bathing and eating as “signs” of how beautiful weakness is. (It’s not hard to discern here a feminist statement here about women’s roles in gendered Japan because Kojima’s “signs” effectively invert cultural beauty norms and make them grotesque. Kojima’s self-flagellation also brings to mind religious traditions that encourage people, women in particular, to endure suffering to obtain a promised reward.)
Eventually, the narrator’s skepticism about Kojima’s view of life estranges the two, and Kojima rejects him over a surgery to correct his vision.
Contrasting sharply with Kojima is Momose, a nihilistic and hedonistic member of Ninomiya’s crew. He never participates in Ninomiya’s bullying—he simply bears witness with unwavering attention. When the protagonist asks for a reason why, Momose’s answer is chilling, especially when the reader remembers that both Momose and the narrator are barely into their teens:
People start spouting crap about being good to others, being considerate, whatever… Everyone does things they don’t want people doing back. Predators eat prey, and school serves no real purpose other than separating the kids who have what it takes from the ones who don’t. That’s the whole point. Everywhere you look, the strong walk all over the weak. Even those fools who think they’ve found the answers by coming up with perfect little sayings can’t escape it. Because the real world is everywhere.
The psychological tension of the novel lies in the narrator’s responses to the world views Kojima and Momose propose. The narrator eventually can’t get by on “the fragments of righteousness” he takes in from Kojima. But neither can he accept Momose’s nihilism. Instead, the novel ends on an ambiguous but hopeful note that he can find a way to live with suffering that satisfies himself. With his eyes surgically corrected, he may finally be able to see.