Would You Want to Know How Long You Have to Live?

THE IMMORTALISTS BY CHLOE BENJAMIN

The central question of this ambitious novel is this: if you were told the exact day you were to die, how would that influence the way you lived?

Intertwined in this, of course, is all the complicating subtext of what drives your life in all its facets—overarching to the mundane.  Would you believe it?  Would you share it with anyone? Would it impact your family obligations? Would it make you more daring or more fearful? And what about everything in-between?

Chloe Benjamin explores this premise through the lives of four siblings through fifty something years of American and interpersonal history.

The book opens with a prologue set in 1969 in the lower east side of New York City. It is summer and blistering hot. The Gold family children —Varya, 13, Daniel, 11, Klara, 9 and Simon, 7—are bored, have no plans, and the summer has weeks to go. The world is exploding around them. Vietnam. Stonewall. Woodstock. The moonwalk. Yet, nothing is happening for them. They don’t even have the money to go to the movies.

Daniel overhears some boys talking about a woman who has powers to tell you when you are going to die. At first, none of them think it’s a good idea to go find her, but then they unite at the challenge of all doing something frightening together. Before going, they hear stories about her and how right she has been to the day,

They find her in a smelly apartment building. This nasty looking greasy, braided haired woman talks to them one at a time, locked in her shabby apartment. She doesn’t use any magic tricks. No tarot cards. Or crystal balls. She doesn’t need them. Just by sense, she tells each of them their destiny, whether their life will will be long or short, to the day. She would not take the little bit of money they put together to pay her. They each were shaken when they left her but didn’t tell. Later, while still children, when their father died, three of them shared but not the youngest, Simon. He only screamed.

From that prologue, the book is divided into four parts, each recounting the lives of the four children from the young Simon to the oldest, Varya.  Each had a very different trajectory. Simon and Klara left home as soon as Klara finished high school. They left, almost as runaways, in pursuit of freedom from the life that was expected of them and the care of their demanding, widowed mother, Gertie. They traveled to San Francisco by bus. Simon, in pursuit of who he might really be; Klara to become a magician. They were the less earthbound of the siblings.

There had been an expectation that Simon stay to care of his mother and eventually take over the family tailoring business. The older siblings were in college and wanted to stay there.  That was one disconnect for me in this book.  While we were definitely in a time period when children were exploring themselves on their way to independence, for this family there seemed to be an expectation at least one of them was to live with their widowed mother, Gertie.  There was little character development of her other than her weeping, screaming and unyielding demands.

I had to keep looking at the dates since we started off on Hester Street.  This wasn’t the early immigrant times even with their lower east side beginnings. I felt this mother was almost as much an albatross to the children’s destiny as knowing their date of death. She demanded so much, they could only give up, give in, or run as Klara and Simon did. I thought Gertie was overdone and made me want to skip pages.

Chloe Benjamin

In an interview, Chloe Benjamin said she was interested in the adult sibling bond. There was a particular closeness among these brothers and sisters given the gypsy visit and the expectations their culture and family structure expected of them. What was interesting was how it spun out for the four of them. Was the breakout for some or the paralysis of others a matter of nature, nurture, or the harboring of knowledge none of the rest of us ever know?

The section on Klara and magic was the most interesting to me. Klara’s take on magic was that it reveals the possibility of mystery in reality. Here is a passage from an audition at the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas with her husband, Raj:

It’s not enough to explain what we don’t understand.” She lifts the ball and holds it tight in her fist. “It’s not enough to account for the inconsistencies we see and hear and feel: When she opens her fist, the ball has vanished. “It’s not enough on which to pin our hopes, our dreams—our faith.: She raises the steel cup to reveal the ball beneath it. “Some magicians say that magic shatters your world view. But I think magic holds your whole world together. It’s dark matter; it’s the glue of reality, the putty that fills the holes between everything we know to be true. And it takes magic to reveal how inadequate” —she puts the cup down—”reality”—she makes a fist “is.” When she opens her fist, the red ball isn’t there. What’s there is a full perfect strawberry. 

Simon becoming himself was also done well although I do think, more energy could have been spent with him wrestling with his new found sexual freedom, and love of dance in context of the dark prophecy he received as a young child. It moved a bit too fast for me.

I didn’t empathize with Daniel. He felt underdeveloped to me. Why did he accept so little for himself?  Was it who he was or the prophecy? And what made him of all people do what he did?  And what was that with the FBI agent?

The Varya research was more compelling than Varya herself. The primate and longevity storyline is interesting but the rest of it seemed a bit sad, maybe unlikely. Maybe the color just faded as we went on. Simon the brightest, dimming from youngest sibling to oldest.

I do think the whole culture of the Romas are fascinating. Both vilified and revered for their abilities. I’ve never had life changing fortunes told but I’ve had enough experiences to believe that some people have a Gift.

A Roma encampment. In this fictional account, our gypsy, Bruna Costella, left her family, lived alone in a trailer and did not accept money for her predictions

These characters certainly didn’t do well with living with the prophecy. But maybe in their own way this might have been their lives anyway. Simon, wild child. Daring Klara. Repressed Daniel. OCD Varya. Jewish-Mama-at-her-Worse Gertie. The home they grew up in, and the foundation they all had was a bit shaky to begin with. Could that have made a difference? Maybe they lived the only way they knew how, long life or short.

Would you want to know how long you had to live?

Thoughts?

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