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)

Marginalia: Woody Skinner

Marginalia: Woody Skinner

For the latest Marginalia podcast, I interviewed Woody Skinner about his debut book of stories, A Thousand Distant Radios. Skinner grew up in Batesville, Arkansas, and now lives in Chicago. He holds a BA in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi, an MFA from Wichita State University, and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. He has a unique voice and offers an odd spin on reality in this collection that’s difficult to forget. Glean some marginalia for your own hand-selling arsenal. Or if you just want to hear him say his name, here you go:

A Thousand Distant Radios by Woody Skinner (Atelier26 Books, available through IPG | 9780989302395)

Quick & Dirty: Complimentary Bookmarks?

With the Quick & Dirty Survey, I ask just one question. To answer, simply hit reply, type in your response, and press send. I’ll compile the results and report back to you next Thursday. It’s a quick way to discover what the rest of the bookselling world is doing, one (+/-) question at a time.

Today’s question: Do you give away complimentary bookmarks to customers?

Okay, so this one has an optional second step. Snap a pic of your bookmark (current or past) and either attach it to your email reply, or text it to me at 316-208-3438. I’ll compile a gallery of bookmark images so we can share the design idea love.

Thanks! And happy Friday!

300 Seconds: Tis the Season?

If you still have holiday decor up in your store, hey, I’m not one to judge. One year I threw a party on February 25 just so my friends could help remove ornaments from my tree.

If you have decided it’s time to switch out the seasonal theme, you might take 300 seconds to walk through the store to make sure you’ve caught all of the hidden places.

Look at your front door for posters or signs that might be out of date. Glance at your website to make sure it doesn’t have any stray holiday messages. Check your answering machine, the bottom of your receipts, and even your wrapping paper selection. Sometimes we become so accustomed to seeing items in our daily lives we do not realize they’ve expired.

And if you’re free the evening of February 25, the festivities begin at 7.

300 Seconds: Simplify by Number

This ‘300 Seconds’ piece isn’t for everybody. Some of you have all areas of your life in order and I applaud you. Instead, this task is for anyone who at the very least considered a 2018 resolution to declutter, simplify, or organize some part of your life. I call this strategy “simplify by number” and here’s how it works:

  • On the first day of the month, purge 1 item.
  • On the second day of the month, purge 2 items.
  • On the third day of the month, purge 3 items.

I’m pretty sure you can catch the pattern here. Continue to purge the number of items corresponding to that month’s date. Add up a typical month of 31 days, and you have the potential to purge 496 items.

When my self-proclaimed life coach first instructed me to try this method, I didn’t think I had 496 items available to purge each month. And I was especially fearful of failing around day 28. But then I remembered that stack of magazines growing in the corner. And the galleys I’d been needing to send to my reviewers. And my email inbox that will never be at Inbox Zero. And the duplicate files in my Dropbox. Yes. Digital items count, too.

Some of the reasons this method has continued to work for me is because I tell myself that I can skip days and pick up again when I’m able, I can start the process on any day of the month, and the daily finite number gives me a stopping point so I do not become overwhelmed.

Today is January 4. File, toss, or distribute 4 items. One could even be this email. [grin] And remember, there will always be more available to purge tomorrow. But wait until tomorrow to do so.