On that great speaker of truths that is the TV show The Good Place, a character recently made a speech that makes as much sense of the human condition as anything else. “All humans are aware of death,” she explained. “So we’re all a little bit sad. All the time. That’s just the deal.”
The Immortalists, a new novel by Chloe Benjamin, is devoted to that awareness and its inherent sorrow, and the different ways human beings deal with it. Benjamin’s characters are more aware of their death than most people. As small children in New York’s Upper West Side in 1969, the four Gold siblings visit a fortune teller who reveals the exact date of each of their deaths — and then leaves them to live their lives with that knowledge.
Simon learns that he will die at 20, and in response, he embraces his queer identity, leaving his family behind to start a new life in San Francisco. He has no time to lose, he figures. Klara, who learns that she will die at 32, becomes obsessed with death-defying stage magic feats. Daniel, set to die at 48, aggressively embraces bourgeois domesticity: He becomes a doctor, gets married, buys a home, and courts stability at all costs.
But Vera, set to die at 88, denies herself everything. She’s a scientist who researches longevity, and she believes that the best ways to stop aging are to suppress the reproductive system or restrict one’s caloric intake — in other words, to never succumb to either hedonism or to domesticity. To cheat death, she decides, she must give up all the coping mechanisms her siblings used to cling to their lives before their deaths.
Benjamin enters each sibling’s head sequentially, giving the book a four-act structure, with each act functioning as a period piece: Here is the queer scene in San Francisco in the early ’80s; note the AIDS crisis lurking in the background (in a slightly rote and predictable fashion). Here’s what it’s like to be a touring stage magician living a life of vagabond glamour in the ’90s; note the era-appropriate details of the car phone and the smoking section at the restaurant. Here’s what it’s like to live in the suburbs in 2006. Here’s what it’s like to be a lady scientist in 2018.
At her clumsiest, Benjamin integrates these details into the novel dutifully, like a student showing off her research: I did my reading, she almost seems to say; I can give you footnotes. But at her best, she succeeds in infusing her scenes with a kind of worn-in depth that keeps the reader grounded and aware of they are as Benjamin hurtles us from 1969 to the present.
Benjamin keeps an elegant ambiguity working throughout the whole thing. It’s never entirely clear that the fortune teller who spoke to the Gold siblings told the truth: Were they always fated to die when they did? Or did the idea of their death dates lurk in their minds, drawing each into the patterns that would eventually kill them?
Whether or not their foreknowledge is accurate, the Golds are not, on balance, significantly different from the rest of us. Like the rest of us, they’re all aware of their death all the time. So they’re always a little bit sad, all the time. But it’s what they do with their sadness and their fear, The Immortalists suggests, that make them worth following.