By Chloe Benjamin
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
In my experience, the most difficult kind of book to write about is a mediocre book.
The easiest books to write about, obviously, are bad books. It’s almost joyful to write about bad books, to stretch out into descriptions of what you hated, to justify at your leisure why each sin is mortal.
Excellent books, adored books, presents their own challenges (you never seem to do them justice), but it’s always a pleasure to defend something you love, to show it to someone who might never have seen it otherwise.
But mediocre books, they are a challenge. Writing about them does not offer the catharsis of a good eviscerating – they do not deserve it anyway – but neither can you endorse them with enthusiasm. They have no earned opprobrium, and so there is no fun in heaping it on them; you don’t want to damn them, but you must, at least with faint praise.
So, ‘The Immortalists‘:
One sultry summer day in 1969, the four Gold children, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, visit a Roma woman who, their friends have told them, can tell each of them the day that they will die. One by one, these four New York children will face her and learn their fate. ‘The Immortalists’ is the story of their lives.
Simon, the youngest, learns that he will die in his early twenties. A closeted homosexual, he will escape his family’s expectations and follow his sister to San Francisco in the early 80’s, where he will live a few years of blissful freedom before succumbing to AIDs. Klara, told she will die in her early thirties, becomes a magician, the performer she always intended to be, but she will never recover from her brother’s death.
Daniel, the elder son, becomes a doctor. He has been told that he will die in his middle ago, and as his death-date nears, he becomes obsessed with the woman who gave it to him, convinced that her prediction has caused the deaths of his two younger siblings. Varya, the eldest, lives her life burdened by the knowledge that she will live until she is 88. She becomes a scientist, a researcher into aging. Her life revolves entirely around her work and her mother, whose care, after the deaths of all three of her siblings, has fallen entirely onto her. She suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder which makes her avoid human touch, and she survives on the same calorie-restrictions she feeds her lab animals.
The problem with ‘The Immortalists‘ is that it aims high, and its ambition shows. It is, I think, an attempt to explore the effect of death on life. What would it mean, to know when you were going to die? Would it be freeing, or would it be the most profound condemnation? Each of the Gold children will struggle with this dilemma, each will find themselves damned in some way by what the woman has told them.
It’s an interesting question, a moving one. But ‘The Immortalists‘ shows its hand too often; it’s clunky, obvious. It never errs on the side of subtlety when it could smack you right in the face, and that robs it of much of its potential effect. The minute you learn that Simon is a gay teenager, you know that he will die of AIDS, the price he will pay for his few years of freedom. It’s the shallowest metaphorical level for this lesson, the lowest hanging fruit, and Benjamin grabs it.
Daniel, at loose ends in his career, weighed down by grief from the death of his two siblings, decides to go and shoot the woman who gave them these prophecies, where he is gunned down by an FBI agent – not a likely end for a family man and physician. There were other ways to do this, to make this point about derangement and rage and grief, more realistic ways. But Benjamin consistently takes the most obvious road where a subtler one might have been more interesting.
It’s not that I don’t think that obvious books can’t be great – sometimes the blatant mechanism is the best mechanism. But Benjamin picks the blatant mechanism every single time. Simon’s choice, to live his short life freely, will literally, directly, bring about the early death that has inspired his bravery. Varya, granted long life only to watch her entire family die, will literally devote her to life the extension of life against aging. Klara, having spent her life in pursuit of magic in which she believes literally, will prove her own magically-predicted death date by actually, literally, killing herself on it.
A subtler novel would have been a better one, in my opinion. The premise is interesting; the question, profound. We spend our entire lives negotiating with our deaths, in one way or another. And Benjamin is right: there are multiple effects that death may have on our lives. Some of us are liberated by the certainty of our end: we maximize the time that we have, because the only thing that we know for sure is that it will be limited.
Some of us, though, will allow our lives to be cramped and deformed by our foreknowledge of death. Fear will constrain us, alter our movements, limit our scope. Despite the fact that death is everywhere and eternally inevitable, we will try, eternally and inevitably, to cheat it.
So, this is what fantastical fiction is meant to do (or, one of the things): it uses impossible premises (you will know the day of your own death) to interrogate the universal. And sometimes the best way to do this is to take the most extreme example – sometimes extreme examples are illustrative.
But I think ‘The Immortalists‘ is trying to have it both ways: it is a realist novel with a fantastical premise. The lives of the four Gold children are meant to be plausible in our world given a single magical event. The problem is, taken all together, they strain credulity, and that diminishes the effect of the work.
But it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad book. It’s very readable, the pages almost turn themselves. It’s well-paced, the writing is competent, even good. More: the writing is good enough that the content is easy to emotionally connect with, not necessarily an easy feat.
‘The Immortalists‘ is exactly the kind of book that makes me want to avoid contemporary fiction. Not a bad book, but not a great one, either, not one that will go the distance, not one that will be read by our great-grandchildren. When it came out, critics were pleasant but mild in their praise, as well they should be: ‘The Immortalists’ is a pleasant book. Fun to read, difficult to remember. A tasty drink, but weak. A beach read. It’s not that I regret reading it – hard to regret a pleasant read – but the time might have been better spent elsewhere.