Two book critics, Bradley Sides and Darley Stewart, examine Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists.
Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya Gold are just ordinary kids living in New York City when a traveling fortune-teller who can reveal any person’s death date arrives in town. The psychic’s promises are too much for the siblings to resist. But what do they do with this information now that they have it? Chloe Benjamin’s exquisitely written and emotionally consuming The Immortalists, which explores love, regret, and desire, asks readers to ultimately decide what makes a life well-lived.
Bradley Sides: The brief opening chapter of The Immortalists is rather magical. It delivers everything we need to know about the Gold children — Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya, and it builds the psychic’s prophecies really nicely. The first chapter is INCREDIBLY energetic. I mean, I was frantically turning those first few pages, waiting to see what would happen next. It, for real, almost had me breathless. Suddenly, though, as the opening chapter ends, Benjamin steps back and slows her story down. What follows isn’t fifty short chapters with rapid pacing from various points of view. Instead, she gives us four (extremely) large sections that tell about the life of each central character. I’m curious to know what you think of the novel’s structure. Do you miss the rapidity of that first chapter? Or do you think the more focused (and detailed) approach to each character gives us something we couldn’t get from shorter chapters?
Darley Stewart: The lucidity of the prose carries a consistent musicality, but the pacing has much more versatility. I burned through Part 1, Simon’s story. I was completely taken with Simon as a character and I was feeling all kinds of dread as his story hurtled towards exactly where I thought it was going. It was a good dread. I didn’t miss the rapidity of the first chapter, but I did feel a kind of gasping need to know more about Simon. I suppose you could say I grew attached, always a great sign when you’re reading a novel. I was heartbroken that he was taken away from us so quickly, and that compelled me, after a day or two, to pick the book back up and find out and see, okay, how is Simon’s death going to affect the other characters, how are they going to process this as an already estranged and broken family. Like you, I had that breathless feeling after the first section rather than the first chapter. As I progressed through the novel, I came to enjoy the four large sections based on each family member and was impressed with this simple, beautiful structural practice. It’s interesting what you say about the shorter chapters — I wouldn’t have wanted Benjamin’s novel organized any other way. So seamless, richly detailed, yet structured so my mind would be required to do at least two things at the same time: feel as deeply as possible about the chapter’s central character, and wonder about this character’s perceptions in relation to their family history. Stunning!
BS: I totally relate to what you said about the first section with Simon — how you “burned through” it. I did, too. Yeah, it’s not necessarily rapid-fire like the first chapter, but I think his entire section is completely engaging. From the beginning, I wanted to know what would happen, how it would happen, and, you know, if it would happen.
A large part of why I feel so connected to Simon’s story is because his section fully captures what it feels like to want to escape something. There’s pain, but that pain battles with desire. Simon doesn’t seem like a fictional character; instead, he is a genuine person.
I love the moment when he goes to the fancy party with Robert and he looks around and sees happiness. He sees fulfillment and success. He sees the life he might’ve been able to have. But he knows he can’t have it: “It occurs to Simon that he would like to have a life like this: a career, a house, a partner. He’s always assumed that these things are not for him — that he’s designed for something less lucky, less straight. In truth, it is not only Simon’s gayness that makes him feel this way. It’s the prophecy, too, something he would very much like to forget but has instead dragged behind him all these years. He hates the woman for giving it to him, and he hates himself for believing her. If the prophecy is a ball, his belief is its chain; it is the voice in his head that says Hurry, says Faster, says Run.”
It just breaks my heart. And you know what? I think it was at this scene that I realized the prophecies the psychic made would be true and that Simon’s time would come to an end sooner than I would’ve liked. It’s that blunt realism that life so often throws at us. It’s tough, but it’s life.
There’s a downside to Simon’s story being so great, though: the other siblings’ stories have a lot to live up to.
DS: Yes. I found Simon and Robert’s relationship tender and compelling. It’s interesting when a novel starts off so powerfully. As a reader it’s instinctive to want the rest of the novel to match that pitch, that intensity — because essentially, you’ve fallen in love hard and fast with the book and you want the love to last. But it can’t. It has to evolve out of that first seduction. I’m happy to say that The Immortalists provides plenty of emotional rewards for the reader after that first section with Simon comes to a devastating close. In a sense, I felt I matured along with the book and that there was a voice encouraging me to continue to see this as a book about a family as a whole, the patterns and ties between family members — a book with strong thematic ambitions, not so much individual characters to become entranced by, though that always helps. Perhaps the theme of mental stability jumped out at me the most. You?
BS: You point out two really interesting things about The Immortalists. First, the way you read it as a novel about a family instead of individual family members is something that I (embarrassingly) don’t think I’ve even considered until now. And you know what? I think you are totally right. Thematically, that approach works better. When one character dies and the focus turns to another one, I was sad, but at the same time, I was still invested in what would happen. The themes keep coming, and they keep growing.
I also like that you bring up the importance Benjamin places on mental stability and how it can (and does) alter lives. To add to that just a bit, too, I think there’s a similar kind of focus on emotional stability. The two seem to coincide on several occasions. From my reading of this book, the example I keep thinking about is the one that is probably most central to the development of the story — the moment the Gold children get their death dates from the psychic. They, of course, can’t know if the dates are correct, but having this information haunts them — totally. It’s fair to even argue that it consumes them. I love the wording Benjamin uses in Simon’s section about the power of holding this information, which I mentioned earlier: “If the prophecy is a ball, his belief is its chain; it is the voice in his head that says Hurry, says Faster, says Run.” Mentally, the siblings have a difficult time focusing on life because they can’t help but think about when death might strike and how they can avoid it. Emotionally, these characters can’t express their feelings appropriately. Simon leaves his problems. Klara does magic tricks. Daniel runs pretty much everywhere with little thought, and he hides behind his profession. Varya works in labs with monkeys trying to figure out how to uncap the magic of longevity. Stability is hard to find here.
DS: Yes, in a way, the deaths are exciting — you want to see how they’ll arrive at their death. I don’t know if that’s a very empathetic response on my part, ha. But you want to see if they’ll fall prey to their own minds. And you can’t help but ask yourself the same question while you’re reading the book: would I want to know? And my answer both before and after reading the book is definitely no. I wouldn’t want to know. The burden of knowing the date of your own death is enough for you to instigate it, or propel yourself toward it, or maybe even take your own life to rid yourself of that knowledge. It’s not an original philosophical question, but it works really well when provoked and answered in the pages of a novel as exquisitely written as this one. Each sibling has a relationship with death, like you said. Simon succumbs to authentic living, perhaps a devil-may-care response to death, Klara is subsumed by it within her own metaphysical, mystical enclave, nearly an aestheticizing or performance of death, while Daniel tries to confront it directly (the most unstable response in the book), and Klara proceeds rationally, as though logic holds the answer to it all.
BS: You just pointed to the question that I think a lot of people will be considering after reading The Immortalists: would you want to know the date of your death? I can, I guess, see how this knowledge is attractive. The psychic explains this perspective well: “If they have answers, they’ll be free, is what I thought. If they know when they’ll die, they can live.” But I agree with you in your response. There is absolutely no way that I’d want this information. Personally, I have such bad anxiety about everything that I wouldn’t be able to function. Looking at the characters in this book, we see how this information destroys them. They totally fall apart like you said. Their lives aren’t about working toward goals and finding happiness and being in love and all those other things we typically seem to value; instead, the siblings in The Immortalists are focused on changing fate. They don’t want to just live; they want to live longer. They long for the mystery and the sense of choice the psychic took away from them. Varya conveys this sentiment perfectly near the end of the novel:
“To go back to the beginning. She would tell her thirteen-year-old self not to visit the woman. To her twenty-five-year-old self: Find Simon, forgive him. She would tell herself to take care of Klara, to sign up for JDate, to stop the nurse before she took the baby out of Varya’s arms. She’d tell herself she would die, she would die, they all would. She would tell herself to pay attention to the smell of Klara’s hair, the feel of Daniel’s arms as he reached down to hug her, Simon’s stubby thumbs — my God, their hands, all of them, Klara’s hummingbird-quick, Daniel’s slender and restless. She’d tell herself that what she really wanted was not to live forever, but to stop worrying.”
Where I think all of this leads is another question for readers to consider as we read Benjamin’s novel. Are we to believe in fate? Or do we have the freedom of choice? Different readers will have different responses, but I’m curious which you think The Immortalists seems to favor.
DS: I thought the point of the novel was to show that fate and freedom of choice aren’t possible to separate. But then I would loathe to reduce a novel to a simple point on that score, so I would say that it does a very good job of complicating both concepts. It’s like when Raj asks Klara whether she’s a magician who believes in her own tricks. Whether it’s the dark mark that emerges on Simon’s stomach, as he sobs against the cool porcelain of the tub; Klara’s ruminations on the loneliness of parenting, which she equates with the loneliness of memory; Daniel’s conclusion that God isn’t a product of human longing and shouldn’t “be designed based on personal preference, like a custom pair of gloves,” soon violently disrupted by his decision to take matters into his own hands; each character is both agent and recipient of the cruel DNA of fate and freedom. It’s Varya’s conviction that I think comes closest to the heart of the book: “If there was one tenant of Judaism with which she agreed, it was this: the power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations.” The narratives we tell ourselves manipulate the outcome of events; how plain that sounds compared to Benjamin’s fluid, compassionate prose. And that’s really only the surface of what The Immortalists accomplishes — this novel is, I feel, brave. What do you think?
BS: I lean toward the novel favoring choice, with fate kind of always hiding in the background somewhere. The lives the Gold siblings choose are the results of choices they make. Whether looking at Simon’s decision to go out West or Varya’s choice to work in science, both are choices freely made. Saying that, though, I’m not sure how much the characters believe these decisions are actually choices. They might see these happenings as fate, which is fair, I think. Benjamin accomplishes something really wonderfully in this book: she gives us questions, but she doesn’t force answers upon us. Those are for us to uncover ourselves — maybe now or maybe later.
We’ve both established that we think The Immortalists is a good book. The plot is unique. The characters are (mostly) endearing. The prose is pristine. It works on a lot of levels. The one thing I expected more of was magic — real magic, not Klara’s magic. The cover and the description both made me think there would be more of the fantastic. The first chapter has this shiny magical realism tinge that works really well, but it fades. Maybe this is one of those situations where a kid grows up saying she wants to be a magician, but it doesn’t work out for whatever reason so she becomes a writer. She’s still taking people to enchanted lands and offering things this world can’t. No, she’s not technically a “magician,” but she is one… Maybe Benjamin, through the fortune-teller’s prophecy and the various escapes these characters make, is trying to show us the magic that can be found in our lives even if we aren’t living “magical” lives? And perhaps that’s the magic The Immortalists holds?
DS: True, I hadn’t thought of that. I didn’t go into the book with any specific expectations (though I probably should have! Framing can be a good thing for a book critic to do from the start) — but I agree with you that Benjamin shows that magic can be found in our lives, especially because magic performs a dual function: equal parts deception and the potential to reveal greater truths that couldn’t be obtained through a purely physicalist notion of our lives.