I don’t watch much live television, but I confess that I do like long-form TV series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey, all of which I have found irresistible on DVD and Netflix. One thing I’ve learned from watching all that canned drama is that you don’t gain much life experience and wisdom by keeping your eyes glued to the set.
No matter how much distilled culture and wisdom you think you’re taking in, it’s absolutely not the same thing as being affected by an actual situation in real life. The same applies to literature: reading good books like Middlemarch or Buddenbrooks or Imitation of Life won’t, in and of itself, make you wise. You’ve got to live your life, engage in your own interactions, make your choices and be affected by them.
Which brings us to Chloe Benjamin, 28-year-old author of an iridescent new novel called The Immortalists. Where does such a young person gain such knowledge, such craft, such humanity, such wisdom? The answer must involve one of those sweet mysteries of life that Benjamin delights in exploring: each moment, each shift, each movement of her characters brings some new revelation, continuously changing like a pattern of sunlight and shadow moving dynamically across a plain.
The Immortalists is founded on the magical premise that knowledge of one’s mortality – specifically, the date of one’s death – will profoundly affect the way a person chooses to live his or her life. In the case of the Gold family, a Jewish immigrant couple with four children who live in New York’s Lower East Side, the repercussions of that knowledge become stronger with time, and inform their fate to a degree that is nothing less than Oedipal.
The story is given shape by the children’s secret, and somehow forbidden, visit to an exotic Romani (“Gypsy”) fortune teller who uncannily and chillingly gives each one their expiry date as effortlessly as if reading it from the label of tin of soup. The intrusion of the supernatural into everyday life – especially as lived on the Lower East Side – is a pure Malamudian touch, reminiscent of stories like The Magic Barrel and The Angel Levine.
Benjamin must be the literary love-child of Bernard Malamud and Anne Tyler, gaining magic realism and ironic humour from one, and warmth of character from the other. The Immortalists may also remind readers of the Henry James story, The Beast in the Jungle, in which a prophecy irrevocably alters the course of a protagonist’s life. He spends his lifetime looking fearfully over his shoulder, trying to avoid the sudden pounce of a beast in the jungle, only to realize in his old age that the prophecy itself was the pouncing beast that changed everything.
As they grow into adolescents and then adults, the Gold children (Varya, Daniel, Klara, Simon) can’t forget the fortune teller’s words, nor her fearful reputation for accuracy. The book, which spans from the late 1960s to the 2000s, now focuses on each of the children in turn.
Simon knows he doesn’t have much time and wants to live his life. So he runs with sister Klara to San Francisco in search of love. He becomes a dancer in a gay nightclub and loses himself in hedonism, cutting ties with everyone in his family except Klara. One day a cop pulls him into the station, punches a number into a telephone, and hands him the receiver: his mother, Gertie, is on the other end.
Like Bessie, matron of the Glass family in the Salinger stories, Gertie is capable of rising to momentary wisdom. “Nobody picks their life. I sure didn’t,” she tells Simon. “Here’s what happens: you make choices, and then they make choices. Your choices make choices. You go to college – my God, you finish high school – that’s one way of tipping the odds in your favour. What you’re doing right now, I don’t know what the hell will happen to you. And neither do you.”
The family is shattered when Simon, true to prophecy, succumbs to a deadly new plague that doesn’t even yet have a name. Now the story shifts to Klara, who has dedicated herself to becoming a performer of magic, billed as The Immortalist; she wants to spark her audiences with the awareness that there’s something more behind the dull veneer of everyday life. She marries, has a delightful child named Ruby, but can’t escape the pre-ordained decree.
Daniel decides to take action against the unseen hand of fate, becoming as audacious as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she pulls back the curtain to reveal that the great and powerful wizard is just an ordinary man. But Daniel, in his panic, becomes reckless, and (spoiler alert) it’s curtains for him as well.
Unlike real life, the best novels are a closed system where incidental characters often transform into substantial players. Such is the case with Eddie O’Donoghue, the policeman who made the phone call for Simon: now an FBI agent in the fraud bureau, he moves from bit player into the spotlight. By the time the story shifts to Varya, we’re well familiar with Benjamin’s dazzling predilection for magic, illusion, transformation and revelation, all accomplished by some literary sleight-of-hand. There seems to be much more going on in her prose than what can be seen with the naked eye.
She also has an uncanny knack for delivering stunning little truths, as when Simon observes about his father’s tailoring shop “that the shop was Saul’s true home, and that his employees knew him better than his children ever did.” Or this Tyleresque line that reminds us of the utter precariousness and fragility of our lives: “When Klara thinks of Ruby, it’s like trying to hold onto a rock in the middle of a river, like trying to cling to something small and hard while everything is pulling her away.”
Although the premise of The Immortalists may seem artificial and limiting to some, its fulfillment is nothing but masterful. The pages burst with the richness of life. Hard to believe a 28-year-old author of only one previous novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, was able to craft something as fine as this.