The Immortalists

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.

Chloe Benjamin

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.

Normal People

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over. He would walk down the hallway and people’s eyes would follow him, like he was serial killer, or worse. His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: It is ok if I come in your mouth?” (p. 28)

There’s a well-worn bit of folk wisdom, that the body knows what it needs. That if you’re iron-deficient, you’ll develop a sudden, strong hankering for, like, kale. Or if a cold is about to come on and you need the immune boost that vitamin C provides, you’ll suddenly crave oranges. That your body can sense its own mineral needs, and translate these needs into food desires below the level of your consciousness.

Ok, sure. Why not? The body is smart.

I wonder, though, whether there is a similar process to address emotional deficiencies. Whether, when we are hurting, or in deep need of solace or wisdom of a particular kind, our psyches know to reach out and get it, even before we have understood the trouble we are in.

I noticed recently that I have been reading novels. I have been reading basically nothing except novels. This is unusual for me: normally, my non-fiction to fiction ratio is about 1:1.

Weirder still, the novels I am reading are changing. My bookshelves reveal a historical preference: I am, as we have discussed many times, a bit of a traditionalist, and so my shelves are dominated by dead, old, white men (which is coincident with, rather than representative of, my literary values: I don’t think white men are intrinsically better than anyone else – I think they gave themselves an unfair lead). If I were asked to list my favorite authors, not a single living author would crack the top…ten*?

*(Although, in the spirit of answering the query honestly: one of the authors I love the most in world, David Foster Wallace, ought to be alive)

And yet, lately, I have been reading almost exclusively contemporary fiction. Weirdest still, I have been reading almost exclusively fiction written by women.

This is enormously out of character for me, but sometimes the heart knows what it needs better than the head. And I have learned that, when the body craves something, it is probably best to consume it. So I’ve been leaning into my emotional needs and reading whatever strikes my fancy, no matter how contemporary, unvetted, or estrogenic it may be.

A few weeks ago I read Sally Rooney’s debut novel, ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I liked it – I thought it was a strong piece of work, but I didn’t feel nourished by it, particularly. I appreciated it, as an intellectual accomplishment, but I didn’t think that I connected with it, emotionally, at the time.

But I have felt the need to read her second novel, ‘Normal People‘, fairly urgently ever since. Like ‘Conversations with Friends‘, ‘Normal People’ made all the important literary people pee their pants, which of course made me not want to read it, but there was something that kept nagging at me. And so, this week, like someone with an iron-deficiency and a kale salad, I sat down and read ‘Normal People’ in one sitting.

Normal People‘ is the story of Connell and Marianne. Connell and Marianne know each other from school – Marianne is rich and unpopular; intensely smart and traumatized by a deeply fucked up family, she moves through the world almost totally alone. Connell is the son of her family’s housekeeper. He is popular and handsome; also smart, he is kind and everyone likes him.

In the afternoons when Connell comes to pick up his mother from Marianne’s house, he and Marianne will form a relationship that is both intense and secret. Her profound unpopularity makes Connell ashamed of her, an unkindness he will not really understand until they go off to Trinity together. There, as Marianne becomes popular and sought-after, and Connell is handicapped for the first time by his shyness and working-class background, both of them will try to discover if they love each other and whether they can be happy.

Conversations with Friends‘ is, at the end of the day, a story about friendship. It is a love story, but it’s about how love hides in friendship. ‘Normal People‘ is a love story, a story about great and transformative love. But it is written in the same spare-and-yet-unsparing style as ‘Conversations with Friends’, which makes it feel disorienting and scary and painful, sort of like being in love.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I find Rooney’s writing extremely effective. I thought at first that her severe lack of style was a little over-stylized (if that makes sense), but I’m completely on board now. The lack of authorial voice forces you into the perspective of the character, right up against them. It’s forgiving and present. Which is a particular accomplishment because ‘Normal People‘ alternately takes the perspective of both of its main characters.

I think it really comes down to why people read novels in the first place.

There are many valid reasons to read novels. People read them to be entertained, or because they are assigned them in school, or to make themselves seem smart.

But why do people read novels like this, as adults, when no one is watching? I think, and maybe I am only speaking for myself, that people read novels to learn about how other people feel, to understand their own feelings, to learn whether their own feelings are normal, to make sense of the world around them, to try to see the world through other people’s eyes and to see whether they are, in fact, part of a common humanity. They read them to see the great range of human emotional possibility, and to fit themselves within that range. They are maps for our hearts.

Sally Rooney

Which doesn’t mean that goodness doesn’t matter. I’m not sure that writerly skill necessarily makes a novel more emotionally effective – in fact, it’s often inversely correlated (Joyce, Pynchon, Faulkner, Dickens, so many of the great writers leave people cold) – but when a well-written novel is emotionally effective, the two qualities become greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s what happened with ‘Normal People‘. The brutal bluntness of the prose, the unflinching eye Rooney uses to examine her characters, the keen ear she has for the subtleties of complex and contradictory human emotions, all combine to make her novels an immersive and moving experience.

I think I understand why I needed to read ‘Normal People‘ right now. ‘Normal People’ is about whether or not broken people can be loved, and that is a question I’ve spent a lot of my life asking. And it is the question I’ve spent most of the last year obsessing over.

I think that ‘Normal People‘ is a probably a great novel, but I’m not really in a position to judge because the only thing that I can think about is how it was exactly what I needed. I’m used to thinking about whether or not books are good; I am used to connecting with them intellectually. I don’t usually just let novels happen to me.

And, of course, ‘Normal People‘ didn’t answer any questions, and didn’t solve any problems. I don’t think that was the point. And I didn’t feel better per se, but I did feel more connected. More normal.

Conversations with Friends

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

One of my small narcissisms: I disdain book fads.

Every year, there are It books, authors the literary cognoscenti have their panties all twisted up about, the new novel that the New York Review of Books declares a Must Read, that every independent bookstore has on it’s Staff Recommendations table (in hardcover), whose author Terry Gross just interviewed last week.

I try to avoid these books.

It’s not that I think they’re all bad books, not at all. Many of them are celebrated quite appropriately (you can count me, for example, among the legions of frothing Elena Ferrante fans).

However, they aren’t all great: some are merely well-publicized. Some are highly experimental, a novel written in all questions, or a novel in one long sentence (these are real things*, and I’ve actually read and loved one of them). Some are more timely than good. Some are fine, but no one will, or should, remember them in five years.

*’The Interrogative Mood‘, Padgett Powell; ‘Ducks, Newburyport‘, by Lucy Ellman

I’m a snob for the Literary Canon – we’ve talked about this before – and, the truth is, if I spent my time reading every contemporary novel that Michiko Kakutani thought I needed to, I wouldn’t have time to read anything else. So I like to give a book twenty years or so, see how it ages, see whether it’s a flash in the pan or whether anyone remembers it a decade later.

But I make exceptions, for all sorts of valid or stupid reasons. Sometimes a book comes recommended by someone I trust; sometimes it catches my eye; sometimes I have already learned to love the author, or the author keeps being compared to someone else I love (careful with this one – it pretty much never turns out the way you want it to).

And, a few weeks ago, I was going through my old New Yorkers and came across a review of ‘Conversations with Friends‘, a fad book from 2017 that I had successfully avoided. But this review (by Alexandra Schwartz) was called, ‘A New Kind of Adultery Novel‘. I didn’t read the review – I didn’t need to. I’m kind of a creepy little pervert, and there was absolutely no chance I wasn’t going to read a New Kind of Adultery Novel. So this week I read ‘Conversations with Friends’.

Frances and Bobbi went to school together. They dated, and then they broke up, and now they are best friends, college students in Dublin, where they perform spoken-word poetry together. Bobbi is beautiful and outlandish and charismatic. Frances is our narrator, plain and severe, quiet and cerebral. She is a socialist and poet, a bisexual who believes that love has been co-opted by capitalism to wring unpaid labor out of mothers.

One night, the two friends are approached after a show by Melissa, an established artist and photographer. As they begin to get to know her, it becomes clear that, like many people, Melissa prefers Bobbi, and Frances, a little defensively, strikes up a friendship with Melissa’s husband, Nick. Nick is a actor who is semi-famous, handsome and much smarter and more sardonic than he appears. As Frances and Nick begin an affair, the relationship between the four adults becomes more and more complicated until it begins to threaten even the love Bobbi and Frances have for each other.

People went kind of bonkers about ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I myself had multiple girlfriends tell me that I had to read it (that way that people do that makes you want to hit them). And I think I know why, even if I do not perhaps share the wildness of the enthusiasm.

Rooney has a way of writing, a plainness of presentation, which is nearly unique and very effective. This is a little what people are reacting to when they talk about the revolution that Hemingway’s prose represented: the way the spareness of the prose, the lack of adornment, left the reader nowhere to hide.

But Hemingway wasn’t writing about the intricate interiors of human relationships – Rooney is, and so the effect is very different. When people write about feelings, even the feelings of fictional characters, they tend to explicitly frame them as feelings, to soften their reality, to layer them away from fact: “I felt as though…”; “He acted like I was…”; “It was as though I had been…”. We lard our feelings with metaphors and analogies, which are illustrative, but also distancing. Even as we contemplate the feeling, we are imagining something else.

Rooney doesn’t do this. She doesn’t invest in the emotional reality of her characters so much as she simply states it as reality and moves on. She doesn’t interpret or elaborate. Because her prose so fundamentally inhabits the experience of her protagonist, when she does employ similes, they have the effect of turning back inwards, into the mind of Frances.

“Certain elements of my relationship with Nick had changed since he told Melissa we were together. I sent him sentimental texts during daytime hours and he called me when he was drunk to tell me nice things about my personality. The sex itself was similar, but afterward was different. Instead of feeling tranquil, I felt oddly defenseless, like an animal playing dead. It was as though Nick could reach through the soft cloud of my skin and take whatever was inside me, like my lungs or other internal organs, and I wouldn’t try to stop him. When I described this to him he said he felt the same, but he was sleepy and he might not really have been listening.” (p. 232)

Sally Rooney

All of which, because of the bareness of the prose, has the effect of making Frances a little hard to take.

Which, ok, a brief temper tantrum on my part: I really, really hate when people object to books because the characters aren’t “likable” or because “there’s no one to root for”. I think it’s infantile to assess books the same way you pick friends: by how much you want to have a beer with them. If you’re only reading books that have people you explicitly like, fuck off to ‘The Babysitters Club’ and let the adults talk.

So it’s not a problem for me that I don’t like Frances (or Bobbi) at all. But, let’s be real: a book about complicated, narcissistic, chilly people hurting each other is a different emotional experience than one that involves heroic, kind people battling evil. ‘Conversations with Friends‘ is a very different book than, say, ‘The Hobbit’. I understand why people reacted to strongly to this book: it’s emotionally bracing. But, like most things that are bracing (a stern talking to from a loved one, a leap into an ice cold lake), it wasn’t pleasant until it was done.

And maybe it wasn’t even pleasant after it was done? But that’s OK – pleasant is emphatically not the point.

Rooney is experimenting with a different way of communicating about emotions. She’s trying to show the interior life of a young woman, show us her anger, and her loneliness, her fear and her attempts at love, the way that she herself experiences them. The prose is meant to be immersive – there is no framing here, to give you distance. And because Frances is angry and lonely and scared and receives no consolation from love, the experience is a little bleak, a little real, a little rough and almost totally undigested.

It’s tough, because I know I was supposed to love ‘Conversations with Friends‘, and so I really, really didn’t want to. When I finished it, I thought it was competent and over-rated.

But I’ve had a couple days to think on it, to get some emotional distance from Frances, and I think maybe I did love it. Or I really, really appreciated it? Or I saw the same thing all the fart-sniffing New York literary whosits saw: a very smart new writer trying something different. And succeeding.

The Nix

By Nathan Hill

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“So banks and governments are cleaning up their ledgers after years of abuse. Everyone owes too much, is the consensus, and we’re in for a few years of pain. But Faye thinks: Okay. That’s probably the way it ought to be. That’s the natural way of things. That’s how we find our way back. This is what she’ll tell her son, if he asks. Eventually, all debts must be repaid.” (p. 732)

As you may have noticed by now, I don’t love contemporary fiction.  I read a fair amount of it, and I even like some of it, but I rarely love it.

I’m not sure exactly why this is.  The answer that I tell myself is that I rarely shine to contemporary novels because most of them, to put it plainly, are bad.

Now, of course, most novels of any time period are bad: most books are bad.  But if we are still reading and recommending a book that was written two hundred years ago, then we are reading it because generations of readers before us have identified it as good, vouched for it and passed it forward.  Each generation that a book survives is a finer and finer filter of taste through which it must pass, making it more and more likely that the book is good*.  Previous generations have done much of the work of selecting out the bad books of their own time for us.  And we will do the same for the books of our own generation.

*There is a wrinkle here, though, and don’t think I don’t know it: once books achieve the status of “great”, once they become venerated, people becomes less likely to notice that they are, in fact, bad, and less willing to say so if they do notice, and so some bad books get kind of grandfathered past the normal critical filters.  It’s a real problem (ahem, I’m looking at you, Edgar Allan Poe, looking right at you).

But, since we are the first filter through which contemporary novels will pass, contemporary novels are, therefore, the novels most likely to be bad.  They are unfiltered.  And I, personally, think it shows.

So I have developed a mild aversion to them, a slight generalized contempt for books which are overly demotic, or casual.  Which are grounded too much in my own time.  Maybe I am less compelled by problems of modernity, by plot lines which heavily involve the internet, or television, or video games.  They might be fun (they usually are), but they never seem to have any artistic weight.  Somehow, if a writer mentions tweeting, I automatically assume that his book is Beach Reading, that it cannot be Great Art.

All of which is, I understand, a prejudice.  I am prejudiced.  Which is why I hope that you will believe me in particular when I say that, despite the fact that it is ultra-modern, that it involves the internet AND television AND video games, ‘The Nix‘ is a really great book.

I’m obviously not the first person to notice this (it was a bestseller) but I may be the most reluctant.  I had ‘The Nix‘ slated as Beach Reading for sure, and was irritated when it showed up on all those curated tables in all my favorite bookstores, and was absolutely not going to read it.  However, one day my best friend and I were wandering through one of those bookstores and he pointed to it and said, ‘That’s a great book.  You would love that book’.  And because he is my top-ranked #1 Book Recommender, I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to have to read ‘The Nix’.

(By the way, to offer some measure of how much I didn’t want to read ‘The Nix‘, how much I would rather have been reading ‘Ivanhoe’ and Graham Greene and other snobby shit, I will also mention that that was two years ago.  ‘The Nix’ has been sitting on my To Read Shelf, complete with a recommendation from the person whose opinion on books I trust above literally anyone else’s, for two years.)

Which, shame on me, because I adored it.  My best friend was right (he always is): it is a phenomenal book, and I crashed through it in about two days, loving every minute of it.

The Nix‘ is the story of Samuel Andreson-Anderson.  Samuel is failed writer who makes his living as a mediocre professor of Literature at a mediocre liberal arts college, but who spends most of his time online playing World of Elfscape.  Samuel’s sadness, his essential passive loserdom, his failure as a writer and as a romantic figure, were all locked in place on the day when he was eleven and his mother Faye abandoned him, utterly and without warning.  Samuel has had no news of his mother for twenty years when, one day, she resurfaces. She resurfaces when she is arrested for throwing rocks at a conservative Presidential candidate.

The Nix‘ manages to do the thing which so few contemporary novels actually do: to use the trappings of modernity to explore the genuine existential crises of modernity.  Most contemporary novels wear their modernity on the surface, referencing the cultural soup we’re all bathing in without really utilizing it.  They seem so desperate to prove that they are culturally fluent that they spend all their time showing off all the culture that they know, making jokes and allusions that won’t last five years, without exploring what any of those cultural artifacts really mean for the people who use them.

Nathan Hill

The Nix‘ doesn’t make that mistake.  Nathan Hill uses his character’s context – it is a tool with which he interrogates the peculiar human problems which modern humans have.  He isn’t just being funny about video games – he’s trying to figure out why people get lost in them.  He’s trying to figure out why people get lost at all.

“And since beginning with an Elf warrior named Pwnage he had advanced to play a whole stable of alternate characters with names like Pwnopoly and Pwnalicious and Pwner and EdgarAllanPwn, and he made a name for himself as a fearsome gladiatorial opponent and a very strong and capable raid leader, directing a large group of players in a fight against a computer-controlled enemy in what he came to regard as a being a conductor in a battle-symphony-ballet type of thing, and he rather quickly got extraordinarily good at this…because he believed that if he was going to do something he was going to do it right, he would give one hundred and ten percent, a work ethic he liked to think would soon help him with his kitchen renovation and novel-writing and new-diet plans, but which so far seemed to apply only in the area of video games.” (p. 411)

Hill also avoids another easy pitfall of the contemporary novel: depiction of the dreariness of life as the point of the art. There is a school of art which eschews grand events, seeks instead to act like a mirror to everyday life, to explore the depth and nuance of a totally ordinary life in all its putative depth, all its normal beauty and sadness (the seminal, original novel of this kind is ‘Mrs Dalloway’. I hate novels like this – I find them boring, and drab, and I understand that that is sort of the point of them, but knowing that I was meant to be bored does not actually alleviate my boredom.

The Nix‘ isn’t drab, or dreary, or ordinary at all. It is colorful, and plotty, and exciting. Things happen which would never happen to you, or to me, which would never happen to anyone, really, but because they are well-drawn and funny, the novel works tremendously well as a whole.

I loved this book.  I thought it was funny, and moving, and clever, and wise.  It contained the right mix of correct, quotidian details and outlandish, unlikely plot elements so that I was able both to relate to it and stay hooked into the story.  This wasn’t a novel about my modern life – it’s a novel about a crazy, sad, unlikely modern life, a much more entertaining modern life than mine will ever be.

I thought that I didn’t like reading novels about my own cultural moment – as it turns out, I only like reading them when they are written by a master, and then I love reading them. This book was so good, I ordered it for about three different people right away, and called my best friend for more recommendations. I have no pithy ending line, no great lesson here. ‘The Nix‘ was a joyful, funny read. I think it is a great book. I’m so glad I read it. I wish I could read it again, for the first time, all over again.