Reviews

Review: ‘The Immortalists’

Though fate propels the plot of Chloe Benjamin’s new novel, The Immortalists, the book brims with magic and life. Its premise is simple: on a muggy summer day in New York’s Lower East Side, four siblings pay a visit to a fortune teller who reveals to each of them the exact date of their death. While the siblings do not share the death date revelation with each other, they nonetheless go on to live very different lives across the next five decades influenced, often driven by, this information. The book begs the question: how would you live if you knew how long you had? Would you want to know?

Benjamin sets only the very beginning of the novel in New York City; you certainly wouldn’t call The Immortalists a New York novel, though the Gold family’s progenitors, Gertie and Saul, are Eastern European Jewish immigrants who have settled there. The narrative structure of the book divides the story into four chronological, sequential sections each following a decade of one of the siblings’ lives. The first part, titled “You’d Dance, Kid,” follows Simon, the youngest sibling, as he moves to San Francisco and becomes a pillar dancer at a club named Purp and then studies in a ballet corps, amidst the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Indeed, the title of his section offers one answer to the novel’s abiding question of how you might live if you knew exactly how limited your time on Earth would be. Simon’s ballet teacher offers this instruction, a passage that captures the novel’s ultimate conundrum: “‘From control,’ he says, ‘comes freedom. From restraint comes flexibility. From the trunk … come the branches.’” This section, fittingly, reads with zestful energy and the pages turn effortlessly.

“Proteus,” the novel’s second act, follows Simon’s next oldest sibling, Klara, who is a student of transformation and a sometime pickpocket, as she pursues a career as a magician, beginning in San Francisco and ending in Las Vegas with her partner, Raj. Klara, deeply affected by Simon’s experience, holds herself mostly apart from her other siblings. She wonders if her influence caused Simon’s troubles, or if, as Simon assures her, it contributed to his fulsome life. Above all, though, she seeks an answer to the finality of death. Introducing Klara to her theater audience before a magic show, Raj remarks, “Life isn’t just about defying death… It’s also about defying yourself, about insisting on transformation. As long as you can transform, my friends, you cannot die. What does Clark Kent have in common with the chameleon? Right when they’re on the brink of destruction, they change. Where have they gone? Nowhere we can see. The chameleon has become a branch, Clark Kent has become Superman.” Alas, Klara is also unstable. She periodically hears mysterious knocking sounds that she suspects are communications from beyond the grave. She drinks excessively. She needs proof, and this leads to her undoing.

The final two sections follow the eldest Gold siblings, Daniel and Varya, both of whom have dedicated their lives to science. Daniel becomes a military doctor whose job certifying young men for armed service leads to ethical complications for him. Varya heads a primate research project in California whose aim is to study and promote human longevity. Daniel’s section, “The Inquisition,” ties together earlier plot elements and characters and propels the plot forward; however, it also requires the reader to suspend disbelief to a point where the story feels less organic and more contrived. Since Daniel originally had the idea to visit the fortune teller as a child, perhaps more than any other sibling, he bears the greatest burden of guilt. In that context, his confrontation with the Roma fortune teller makes sense. In the moment of crisis, Benjamin tells us, “Simon and Klara were pulled magnetically, unconsciously; Daniel is in full possession of his faculties. Still, the two narratives float like an optical illusion — a vase or two faces? — each as convincing as the other, one perspective sliding out of prominence as soon as he relaxes his hold on it.” A similar dual perception of reality floats throughout the novel as a whole tugging readers from one interpretation to another.

The ultimate section focuses on Varya, the eldest and oldest surviving sibling, and the staid career she’s built working with primates, and one sad specimen in particular, a monkey named Frida, who seems a bit like Varya’s emotional doppelgänger. Varya suffers from a lifetime of repercussions stemming from the childhood fortune teller visit, though her every effort and fiber seems designed to contradict this knowledge. For example, Daniel’s experience leads her to speculate that “his death did not point to the failure of the body. It pointed to the power of the human mind, an entirely different adversary — to the fact that thoughts have wings.” She is determined to conquer death and fate with science and mindfulness, but at what cost? A visitor to her lab sets into motion a revelation that re-orients her entire carefully constructed existence. The novel finally pays off, as Benjamin allows Varya to develop and change and grow, something largely denied the other siblings in their shorter life manifestations. This fits because Varya is graced with the longest predicted life span, an enviable 88 years.

Chloe Benjamin does not, finally, rule on the perplexing questions she raises about fate and self-determination, deed and thought, quality of life versus inevitability of death. Instead, she conjures a tantalizing brew of how these elements work together over the course of different lives and different decades. With its focus on the deep push and pull of sibling dynamics and family legacy, its light overlay of Jewish philosophy and Romani mysticism, its examination of scientific inquiry, and its ultimate focus on what essentially gives life meaning, The Immortalists will surely satisfy a broad swath of book groups and readers whose taste runs toward the plot driven but cerebral story. By turns entertaining and affecting, the pages turn effortlessly, and the whole blossoms into something greater than the sum of its parts.


The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 9780735213180 | January 9, 2018)

Little Boxes: 12 Writers on Television

Whether you’re still reeling from the AV Club’s cuts to television coverage, dissatisfied with the impersonal nature of most media commentary, questioning why that commentary so often lacks diversity, or just looking for insightful short-form nonfiction, Coffee House Press has a new essay anthology to help ease your Better Call Saul withdrawal and disappointment with Game of Thrones’ short season.

Rather than analyze or annotate the hottest new tv shows, the writers in Little Boxes discuss the way the TV shows of their childhoods and young adulthoods influenced them. Most of these shows haven’t aired in years. Some are streamable cult classics, while others are back on TV in different versions, but each is a marker of a specific shared cultural moment.

That these shows belong to the millions of viewers watching but touch us so personally is a paradox some of these writers address. Justin Taylor’s essay on Dawson’s Creek describes how the show taught him to hate plot blocking and the importance of theme songs, despite initially becoming aware of the show through its marketing, which he saw completely through. Jenny Hendrix talks about somehow absorbing things from of television despite being raised by latter-day hippies in a community that discouraged TV, and her essay raises interesting points about the relationship between cultural identity and individual identity. Elena Passarello digs into the ways syndication and licensing issues affect rewatching and second-wave viewers, the importance of music in a show’s overall affect, and the way a mainstream TV show can open doors to subcultures. Twin Peaks fans will appreciate Edan Lepucki’s examination of how the place where we view a show can affect how it feels to watch it, and Nina McConigley’s experimental essay expands and improves the discourse about representation in popular media. Justin Torres describes the difficult moment when you aren’t ready to see a version of yourself onscreen yet, and T Clutch Fleishman’s piece about a softcore porn show on Cinemax is such a treasure that readers may be tempted to put it in a wooden box, bury it on a small Caribbean island, and create a map that marks its location with an X.

Tiny Boxes is an exemplary collection. No two essays are overly similar, yet they fit together and relate to one another in a way that goes beyond just forming a cohesive book. It’s also full of smart and beautiful writing. My only complaints about it are that it made me want to read more from each of the writers, and some (like Ruman Alaam) are a bit difficult to find, and it’s a great injustice that there isn’t an essay about The X Files. Perhaps there will be a second season, er, volume? In the meantime, I will be rereading Danielle Evans’ reflections on Daria before rewatching the show, perhaps taking notes this time.


Little Boxes: Twelve Writers on Television edited by Caroline Casey (Coffee House Press | 9781566894722 | August 29, 2017)

Review: ‘The Burning Girl’ by Claire Messud

Review: ‘The Burning Girl’ by Claire Messud

Adolescence, those angst ridden years when friendships sometimes resemble love affairs and the whole world turns fraught, might be a time best appreciated in hindsight. The Burning Girl, Claire Messud’s latest novel, offers just that — a haunting, layered, elegiac story about the abiding intensity of friendship between adolescent girls and the inevitable, painful unravelling of that friendship. As with Messud’s last great novel, The Woman Upstairs, this is not a particularly lighthearted read, though it is overflowing with exquisite writing and sophisticated inquiry into the perennial question of whether we can really know those closest to us.

Julia, the novel’s cautious and cerebral narrator, befriends charismatic, bold Cassie in nursery school and counts her as a “secret sister” throughout their shared childhood. The book’s opening section introduces us to Cassie and Julia in the summer before seventh grade, the final, pre-lapsarian era of their friendship, during which they volunteer at an animal shelter and enjoy tanning, listening to Katy Perry, picnicking at the swimming quarry, and, most thrillingly, exploring an abandoned asylum in the woods near their very small hometown of Royston, Massachusetts. Both beloved only children, Julia and Cassie nonetheless come from different backgrounds — Julia’s father is a dentist and her mother a freelance journalist, whereas Cassie’s single mother is a hospice worker with a blank history. Cassie’s father is absent. During the course of story, Cassie’s mother marries a sinister and Puritanical local doctor whose motives seem at best misguided and at worst malicious. Though we never learn what is happening in Cassie’s household, it can’t be good since Cassie begins running away, and her friendship base shifts to the wrong sort as the story progresses.

Review: ‘Pete With No Pants’

Review: ‘Pete With No Pants’

I immediately wanted to read this book because of the title. Seemingly every kid–and even some adults–go through a phase where they just don’t want to wear pants.

In his mother’s words, Pete the elephant is “as naked as a pigeon” for most of the story. He tries to find a connection with things that are “like” him: boulders, trees, clouds, all of which are gray, and none of which are wearing pants. As Pete endures asides from smudgy little squirrels, readers are drawn up and down and every which way across the page to see what happens next. But in the end, rather haphazardly, Pete learns a real life lesson. And although readers never really knows why Pete’s not wearing pants, it turns out not to be his most important attribute. This is a book you will no doubt want to read aloud again and again.

I was also intrigued by the author’s name: Rowboat Watkins. I’m sure you remember him–or at least his name–from Rude Cakes, his 2015 picture book about, well, a rude cake. (Reviewed here.) On his website, Watkins has this to say about his unique first name:

“I’d be a lousy speedboat. And I’m way too shy to be a showboat. And way too weak to be a tugboat. And too gloomy to be a loveboat. And (sadly) not swashbuckling enough to be a dreamboat. And no one wants to be called dinghy. So that left rowboat. Nothing fancy, but great to have around when the ship starts sinking. And they smell good in the rain.”

After reading this book, I’d very much like to read more of Pete’s adventures, even if he’s not wearing pants. And I think I’d also like to be friends with Rowboat, because, let’s face it, those are the best kinds of boats.


Pete With No Pants by Rowboat Watkins (Chronicle Books | 9781452144016 | May 2, 2017)


Editor’s note: When I asked Rowboat Watkins if he had an author image he was willing to share, he replied with this:

Um…I’m not really big on photos of me. Never have been. It is undoubtedly all my parents’ fault. So blame them.
 
But in lieu of a photo of the me that is boringly me, here’s a paper me that is pretty much the same thing. Only cheerier.
 
p.s. In the attached photo, I’m the one on the right wearing pants. Sometimes people think I’m on the left. But that, of course, is a boulder. Or was it a cloud? Anyway, whatever it is, it’s not me. I’m on the right. Just in case you weren’t sure.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Endlessly quotable, tirelessly honest, thoroughly edifying, and delightfully witty: if these are the things you want in a summer read, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is your beach book. Scaachi Koul of Buzzfeed fame (don’t worry, no listicles here) fills these pages with essays that are at once timeless and timely.

If you don’t know Koul from Buzzfeed, you might have heard of her after she became the queen of Twitter, then abdicated after Milo Yiannopoulos sent his goons after her. This incident is the subject of perhaps the most fascinating essay in the book, “Mute.” Following death threats and concerns about doxxing, she left social media for two weeks. How does someone who trolls the trolls (with Good Will Hunting quotes, no less) end up going on internet vacation for a fortnight? What does it feel like to have some of the least sane people in North America hurling racist invective at you and threatening to harm your relatives? Koul eloquently describes both the experience and how she moved on from it.

Most of us (hopefully) will never be chased off a social media platform by puerile xenophobes, but other essays describe events familiar to nearly everyone. From questioning the unusual traditions around weddings (five-day Indian weddings in Koul’s case) to grappling with parental mortality and the way friendships change as we age, essays like “A Good Egg” combine relatable anecdotes with Koul’s particular perspective and incisive wit. As the Canadian-born daughter of Kashmiri immigrants, her split cultural identity informs the writing even when she details experiences almost every woman will recognize. Another standout essay, “Size Me Up,” exemplifies the author’s special talent for not only asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” but walking you through her experience as she lives out the answer. Shadeism and public humiliation are seldom so entertaining.

Then there are essays like “Hunting Season,” which every student should probably be given on the first day of high school. Koul pulls aside the curtain on rape culture to reveal, with raw honesty and startling specificity, precisely where it begins. While many think pieces have been written on this topic, this is perhaps the most pointed and direct one yet, exposing how commonplace the problem is while retaining the distinctive voice and personality that typifies Koul’s writing. More relatable than straight journalism but more polished and credible than a random Medium article, this format and style is perhaps the ideal one for tackling this kind of issue.

The title of this book is a bit of a trick–a portion of it appears on the cover crossed out with a thick black marker, shifting it to “One Day This Will Matter.” Ultimately, the topics Koul writes about do matter, and they matter right now. They will continue to be pertinent issues in the culture at large until it’s no longer remarkable that somebody has written a book like this; until a woman can put these words in print and not have thousands of people clamoring to see her jobless, raped, or murdered.


One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul (Picador |9781250121028 | May 2, 2017)