The point is not to negate reality, but to peel back its scrim,

Dear Chloe,

Your novel The Immortalists (2018) seems to be cursed by the very premise it seeks to explore: the interplay between chance and destiny is not an easy subject to tackle. Your somewhat tamed approach to it, however, is a bad omen.

The book is a decades-spanning story of a Jewish immigrant family. It revolves around the four Gold siblings — Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon. When the story begins, they are respectively 13, 11, 9 and 7 years old. It is the Summer of 1969 on New York’s Lower East Side, and the Gold children are bored and restless. When they overhear a rumour about a psychic on Hester Street who can predict their exact dates of death, they promptly make their way to her apartment. The mysterious fortune-teller then tells each child, separately, the date of his or her death.

From this moment on, the Gold siblings undergo a sharp transformation: as in a fall from grace, they cannot go back to what they were before having eaten this forbidden fruit – the knowledge of the day they will die. The book then jumps ahead, from New York to San Francisco and back, in four individual sections, from the late 70’s to 2010. Intertwined with four decades of American history, we follow the Gold siblings’ diverging paths into adulthood.

In the late ’70s, 16-year-old Simon, knowing he has little time to spare, drops out of high school and runs off to San Francisco, where he comes out as gay, trains with a ballet group, and becomes a dancer in a nightclub. Doomed to die young by the fortune-teller, Simon is reckless in his pursue of pleasure. Each of his choices seems to be magnified by the knowledge of his date of death. As AIDS is spreading among his acquaintances, we cannot help but share this knowledge with him.

Klara, Simon’s best friend and confidante, runs away with him to San Francisco and experiences everything first hand. Obsessed with illusionism (as “a different kind of knowledge, an expanded sense of possibility”), she trains herself to be a stage magician and becomes a professional illusionist dubbed The Immortalist. Gradually drowning in alcohol and depression, Klara increasingly blurs illusion and reality, until the point where she makes a tragic choice between both.

We then jump to 2006, when Daniel is a military medical doctor based in Kingston, NY. Although insisting he does not believe in the fortune-teller, he is still haunted by that day in 1969 – as well as by the deaths of Simon and Klara – “like a minuscule needle in his stomach, something he swallowed long ago and which floats, undetectable, except for moments when he moves a certain way and feels a prick.” Obsessed with revenge, he puts his own life in danger.

Finally, we come to Varya, the last of the Gold siblings. It’s 2010, and she has become a scientist, conducting a longevity study with rhesus monkeys. We soon learn that she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that she has a secret.

The novel’s core is the exploration of how each of the siblings reacts to the knowledge of his or her date of death: Simon’s recklessness; Klara’s unwillingness to give up her trust in magic; Daniel’s scepticism and thirst for revenge; and Varya’s longing for control. The Golds jump to their much-feared destiny at the precise moment they believe they are fleeing from it. In a way, all of them are disturbed by the knowledge of their death, as if it were a slow-spreading poison. As Varya puts it, “stories did have the power to change things: the past and the future, even the present”. The Golds’ belief in the psychic’s premonition shapes every aspect of their lives. And, precisely because of that, their stories are flattened out. We are left no room for ambiguity.

I feel you set yourself to explore the different ways the siblings were altered by this forbidden knowledge; I don’t think, though, that you have succeeded. In the surface, each of the Golds seems to have reacted differently; however, everything they do boils down to one same conclusion: their lives, no matter what direction they take, are laid out as self-fulfilling prophecies, forever cursed by the knowledge bestowed upon them by the fortune-teller.

While Simon and Klara’s stories are more layered and complex, I had a feeling you didn’t quite know where to take Daniel and Varya. Their sections are rushed through, and forced. As you try to make your point clear to the reader, it loses its lustre, its nuance. The second half of the book reads as if you were explaining a trick, instead of, you know, performing magic. The interplay between choice and chance is lost halfway through, as you seem to have lost the control over your plot, precariously balancing it between predictable and highly improbable events, with nothing to hold the reader in-between. We are dragged to the end, as much as your characters are. As the Golds, we are left no margin for choice, no ambiguity, and no magic. The Immortalists cast their spell, but it is a short-lived one.

Yours truly,

J.


Albert Anker, “Fortune Teller”, 1880


“Mira fingered her headphones. She seemed suddenly shy. “I suppose I think we need God for the same reason we need art.” “Because it is nice to look at?” “No.” Mira smiled. “Because it shows us what’s possible”. – The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin

“He believes in bad choices; he believes in bad luck. And yet the memory of the woman on Hester Street is like a miniscule needle in his stomach, something he swallowed long ago and which floats, undetectable, except for moments when he moves a certain way and feels a prick.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

“When Klara plucks a coin from inside someone’s ear or turns a ball into a lemon, she hopes not to deceive but to impart a different kind of knowledge, an expanded sense of possibility. The point is not to negate reality, but to peel back its scrim, revealing reality’s peculiarities and contradictions. The very best magic tricks, the kind Klara wants to perform, do not subtract from reality. They add.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

“Klara won’t be a woman who is sawed in half or tied in chains – nor will she be rescued or liberated. She’ll save herself. She’ll be the saw.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

“Ever heard of Heraclitus?” Varya shakes her head. “Greek philosopher. Character is fate—that’s what he said. They’re bound up, those two, like brothers and sisters. You wanna know the future?” She points at Varya with her free hand. “Look in the mirror.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

“She understands, too, the loneliness of parenting, which is the loneliness of memory—to know that she connects a future unknowable to her parents with a past unknowable to her child.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

“But what I’ve realized—what I think he already knew—is that we believed in the same thing. You could call it a trapdoor, a hidden compartment, or you could call it God: a placeholder for what we don’t know. A space where the impossible becomes possible.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

“Most adults claim not to believe in magic, but Klara knows better. Why else would anyone play at permanence – fall in love, have children, buy a house – in the face of all evidence there’s no such thing? The trick is not to convert them. The trick is to get them to admit it.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

“He’s angry with the disease. He rages at the disease. For so long, he hated the woman, too. How, he wondered, could she give such a terrible fortune to a child? But now he thinks of her differently, like a second mother or a god, she who showed him the door and said: Go.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

“He wonders what he can do to protect Robert, to soothe him – whether to squeeze Robert’s hand ot to speak, whether to stroke his newly shaved head. This responsability, newly gifted, is nothing like fucking: more intimidating, grown-up, so much wider margin for failure.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists

“I’m not coming back.” Simon is crying, for he realizes that what he’s said is true: there now exists a pane of glass between him and his former home, a pane he can see through but not cross.” ― Chloe Benjamin, The Immortalists


About the book

  • Putnam, 2018, 352 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 3 stars
  • This book was kindly sent to me by Penguin Books for review
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