And Then the Gray Heaven by RE Katz centers around Jules, a queer young adult who has emerged from foster systems and displaced homes, and chronicles their journey as they deal with the quick and unexpected death of their partner, B. While B’s family disapproves of the relationship, Jules finds their own way of dealing with grief, ultimately engaging in a road trip to bring two-thirds of B’s ashes to their final resting places, important memorials for B and their life. Through this hero’s journey, Jules learns what it means to exist and become a person of their own creation. Katz moves us across the pages with poignant memories and storytelling, gently handed to us through the perspective of Jules, who is grieving and adapting to life in their own unique way, while simultaneously allowing us to fall in love with B just as Jules did.
Katz uses dramatic detail to intricately tie us into the world of B and Jules. Through ghastly memories of trauma and distrust, we are led to believe so much more about the world than we could ever think possible before. As Jules navigates the world of their shared apartment, now alone, they are forced to find connection and meaningful ties to the world around them in places previously unsearched. Through their newfound connection with Theo, Jules is forced to consider the possibility that connection is available, though previously it was only known through B and their relationship with one another. We are intimately aware of each aspect of Jules’ life as an individual from the stellar first person narrative style used by Katz, placing us delicately in the passenger seat next to Jules for the length of the novel. Through first person narration, we become Jules and see the world through their lens, understanding their pain and rooting for their ultimate embracing of their identity.
Katz makes an effective statement on loneliness and how we cement ourselves in the world. They detail out for us how innately tied to others we are, how we find our worth in those most important to us, and how that does not simply stop when those people are no longer with us in a physical sense. Jules asks B the question, “Are you your brain or your body?” which becomes the question Jules is left to answer themself for the remainder of the novel. Katz takes us on a journey to learn what it means to be not only a body, but to be a human who means more than simply inhabiting a body, through the consistent symbolism of space. We, along with Jules, learn to differentiate our bodily selves with our humanity. We learn what it means to be alive, through suffering and pain, and how that is one way we prove to ourselves we are alive in the first place. Jules shows us what it means to regard ourselves as someone, but to allow and expect others to treat us with that same respect we grant to ourselves. Jules shows us that we are as limitless as the vast unknown, but deserve something more than floating around in the grey matter with nowhere to land. Katz sums this message up through the rules of Mr. Nguyen:
Take a break. Lie down in what you are making. You are a part of an artistic lineage. Remember who and what made you. Make to summon. And when you feel yourself losing direction, pay tribute. Don’t wait for anyone to open the avocado. Just open the avocado.
Boldly written, this novel is a queer story of belonging wrapped in a beautiful tale of grief, loss, and identity. Jules, Theo, and B are figures meant to represent queer identity and highlight how multifaceted people are, with their trauma and shared search for individuality and belonging. As we join in with Jules on the search for wholeness, we see them as a person who more than anything is trying to find a sense of belonging in places where they have been shown nothing but empty chairs and empty tables. By the end of the story, Jules has elbowed their way into these spaces. They have found community in their grief, and once B is allowed to rest, Jules can find their rest as well.
Katz lands one final image of space for us to conclude our findings. They write, on the final page, “I imagine Americans sitting in their living rooms … they want to touch it. But not with their hands: with that fathom in them that’s a cool null too. We did it: we landed on the moon. We used to be afraid of space but now, look at it up there. The whole blessed void: a vast field of care.” Finally, Jules lands. They find their space on the moon, feet sunken into the grainy textures of its surface, and they stay there, for once belonging to something big, but smaller than the rest of what is out there, and perhaps that is what we are meant to ruminate on. We are all in space, aren’t we? Sifting through the void to find somewhere to land, even on something foreign and shifting. We are all, like Jules, looking for somewhere to belong and someone to be.
And Then the Gray Heaven, by RE Katz. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, June 2021. 140 pages. $16.95, paper.
Lillian Barfield is a writer from Honea Path, South Carolina. She is a graduate student at Winthrop University and has a fondness for stories that center around small towns and complex people. Her work is published or forthcoming in Sink Hollow, Holyflea, and Firewords.