The Chinese devised a numerical system of divination 3,000 years ago, using hexagrams, piles of sticks and the I Ching, the ‘book of changes’. The ancient Greeks looked to the heavens and the Persians to the sands and rocks of the earth in search of divine predictions. From Africa to Greece and all the way to Russia, roosters were recruited in attempts to uncover the secrets of the universe. Tea leaves, palms, parakeets, the foamy froth of urine, the livers of sacrificed animals – you name it, someone somewhere has tried to use it to divine their future.
It is impossible to know whether any of these methods is capable of yielding insights about what awaits us. Still, we persist. In New York, taking money to read fortunes is illegal (though a court in California ruled it should be treated much like stock broking and political polling), yet people spend many tens of thousands of dollars visiting psychics. Verification of claims to divination is complicated by the possibility of coincidence, and by the ways in which ‘knowing’ our fate might influence our choices in life.
But this enduring fascination with divining our destiny raises a few questions: why do we want to know? And what would happen if we actually found out? Despite millennia of attempts, we know little of what might result from learning our fate.
It is this question – how would knowing our fate change the way we our lives? – that drives Chloe Benjamin’s second novel, The Immortalists. It tells the story of four siblings, Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya, who – bored on a hot summer’s morning in New York - seek out a woman who knows the date on which their lives will end. The book follows each of the siblings in turn as they move across the country, take diverse paths, and meet their fate, exploring how the knowledge of their impending death affects each of them in turn.
Death’s uncertainty can seem its most terrifying trait. Not knowing when or how it will strike propels us in strange ways. But the stories of this book serve as a warning against a desire for knowledge. Destiny becomes, for the characters, an inescapable burden, a terrible reminder that each life comes with an expiry date.
Benjamin, satisfyingly, leaves many questions unanswered – she never makes it clear whether the fortune teller ‘knows’ the date of their final days, or if the characters are themselves responsible for bringing these dates into reality through the turns they take on life’s path. “Character is fate”, the mystic tells Varya, the oldest sibling, nodding to the notion that we are not unwitting partners in the journey toward our destiny.
This question is not a new one, and variations on this tension – between fate and choice, structure and agency – have intrigued writers in the social and philosophical sciences for centuries. Foucault felt that the answer rests somewhere in between the poles of fate and choice. We are, undoubtedly, influenced by structures and pathways, for we are not given a limitless set of options for how to live our lives, but rather are constrained by a huge array of circumstances that are largely out of an individual’s hands. However, everything is contingent, says Foucault, and each actuality should be considered just one of an infinite set of possible arrangements that could be occurring at that very moment. We make choices, influenced by unknowable factors both internal and external to us, that lead us towards these contingencies.
Each section of The Immortalists focuses on one sibling as they near the date of their death. The first to die is Simon, the youngest. His story explores whether we might live more recklessly if we knew we were to die young. A young gay man discovering his sexuality in 1980s San Francisco, Simon’s character feels at best a little flimsy and at worst a painful stereotype: a delicate child, devoted his mother, struggling to fit in, until he runs away to discover a love of dancing, only to die of AIDS far too young. Benjamin appears to put far more effort into carefully painting the backdrop – the Castro District of San Francisco – than she does into fleshing out Simon’s character. We learn little of who he is and who he might have become had he not died so young, and instead are left with the feeling that Benjamin might have simply rushed through Simon’s story in order to move onto the next. That he is merely a means of raising questions about whether his fate was written or whether his reckless life brought it into being.
It is the second and third deaths of the book that see Benjamin play around with questions of agency and fate. I don’t want to spoil these events for you (though, to be honest, you’ll see them both coming a mile off) but suffice it to say that through the deaths of Klara and Daniel, Benjamin more thoroughly muddies the waters around the relationship between destiny and our choices. She points towards the circularity that comes with ‘knowing' our fates: does knowledge of our fortune lead us to invite it, to bring it into being – even in those instances when we think we’re rejecting it? And how can we possibly live with the knowledge that a certain end is written for us?
Although the stories of these two siblings strike at a deeper and more complex set of questions than Simon’s tale, the book’s underlying problems remain the same throughout: the characters feel like caricatures despite – or perhaps even due to – Benjamin’s painstaking efforts to give their lives detail; the narrative’s main events feel manufactured and clunky; and Benjamin is guilty of bringing all her research to the foreground. The references to the 1980s San Francisco gay scene, though most likely highly accurate, feel clunky – she inserts the names of bars and attractions (Toad Hall, the Castro Theatre, Café Flore) and people and artists (Gary Snyder, Chic, ABBA, Harvey Milk) that feel less intended to enhance the story and more to evoke a sense of place, which is, ironically, undone by these constant historical references. Similarly, her references to magician’s tricks and famous illusionists from the very beginning of Klara’s story – the Hermann pass, the Thurston throw, Dai Vernon and Ilya Hlavacek, references likely lost on the average reader, as they were on me – does little to bring the reader into Klara’s world, and instead reveals an author that appears more concerned with accuracy than with story. The persistence of these references only grows as Benjamin writes of Daniel’s knowledge of Army admittance rules and of Varya’s research on primates, and the reader feels as though Benjamin made no attempt to weave her research into the story, instead allowing it to become a distraction from the powerful premise of the novel.
The questions that drive the book are puzzles that have animated us for millennia. These are enduring, romantic questions. They deserve reverence and care. To take them on requires a certain self-confidence as a writer, coupled with a lightness of hand. Her eagerness to show she has done her research lacks the quiet confidence of writers like Kundera, who tackles similarly grand questions with directness and without distraction, and whose handling of notions of fate and of death is so assured as to feel prophetic.
It’s a strange thing, to feel let down by a book: the book made me no promises, it owed me nothing. The premise of the book is compelling, no doubt, and there are deft strokes throughout – and yet, it falls short of what it might be. The Immortalists is not exactly magical realism, but the moments where Benjamin steers in that direction are some of the book’s best – they have the reader egging her on: yes, more of that please. When a shiny red strawberry appears in Klara’s hand, inexplicably replacing the red rubber magician’s ball she was using as a prop, it is easily the most delightful moment of the book, a hint towards the existence of a kind of magic beyond Klara’s illusions.
It’s not much good, I know, for a review to focus on the book that the author could have written, but Benjamin’s book hints toward the delights of the work of others – Marquez and Allende in particular (indeed, she refers to Marquez more than once in the book) – and where it falls down is in its failure to reach for that delight. It has you waiting to board the train, willing to suspend disbelief, but it never really leaves the station.
Laura Wynne is a researcher and writer based in Wollongong, NSW. She is currently writing her PhD about public housing redevelopment and social inequality. Her writing has appeared on The Conversation, Commotion, and Parity, among others, and she has contributed book chapters to several edited collections.