Would knowing the date of your death make a difference?

by David Hill / 26 February, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - The Immortalists Chloe Benjamin

Chloe Benjamin. Photo/Nathan Jandl

In Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists, all the characters learn exactly when they're going to die.

I have a habit of turning to a novel’s final pages before I decide whether to read it. I also insist on knowing the result before I choose to watch a recorded All Blacks test. Same reason in each case: it minimises the risk of cardiovascular episodes or furniture damage.

I hardly needed to do so with Chloe Benjamin’s second novel (after her 2014 debut The Anatomy of Dreams). In The Immortalists’ opening sequence, her characters all learn exactly when they’re going to die.

In Manhattan’s Lower East Side, it’s 1969, the year of Woodstock, urban riots and a moon landing. Four very young Jewish siblings sneak out to see a peripatetic psychic whose special shtick is announcing expiry dates (well, what else would a seven-year-old spend his pocket money on?) The times they’re given shape their next four decades.

It’s a fair enough, trite enough trope, and it means that all subsequent events throb with portent. It also means that Benjamin can share every scrap of her research with us.

So when Simon flees to the gay scene in California, we read about Aids, Reagan’s denials, Kaposi’s lesions and San Francisco General’s Ward 86; Klara tries to blur reality with fantasy via a career as a magician, so we meet the Herrmann Pass, the Thurston Throw, the Black Palm, along with a short historical dissertation on the Davenport brothers (spirit evocation) and Maskelyne (levitation).

On the more sober side, Varya goes into longevity research (marmoset studies, nerve-cell signalling in Alzheimer’s disease) while Daniel devotes himself to military medicine (Article 15, statistical manipulation, asthma incidence in Detroit recruits). By the end, you’re well en route to being a pub-quiz giant.

It offers much information, then, but the book provides fewer insights. Benjamin’s scenario contains promising ethical issues: how do you cope with knowing not only the date when you’ll pop your clogs, but also the dates when your siblings will? Do you live recklessly or responsibly? Can free will prevail over apparent predestination? But her novel skids around most of these.

It’s a competently constructed narrative, assembled rather than developed, and you can almost see the author’s checklist: exotic locations; Jewish rites of passage; topical social issues; anatomically explicit sex scenes. The writing swaggers along, with a good eye for detail and an indifferent ear for tone. No matter: it’ll make one hell of a movie, and tissue sales will go through the roof.

THE IMMORTALISTS, by Chloe Benjamin (Hachette, $34.99)

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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