Aside from Betty White, the examples of immortality are not encouraging. The ancient Greeks — who, by the way, are all dead now — sang a particularly harrowing tale of Tithonus. He was that prince who got to live forever but kept aging, which is why you should try to stay out of the sun as much as possible when you are young. Centuries later, Christianity promised everybody eternal life, but where and how you might be spending it was a matter of fiery debate.
Why does something so desired get such bad press? Stories about the “tragedy” of immortality spring eternal. Note, for instance, how even vampires have shifted from creatures of terror to figures of pity, doomed to persist forever with those sparkly abs. Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk thriller “Altered Carbon” places immortality at the center of a free-market dystopia. Searching for the fountain of youth, Ponce de León is an exemplar of folly, like all those millions of retirees puttering around Florida in a reality version of “Nip/Tuck Everlasting.”
Clearly, like Hamlet, we are still conflicted about our too too solid flesh. Few of us want to shuffle off this mortal coil, but there is something ridiculous about the Methuselah plans of such people as Ray Kurzweil and his pill-popping quest for longevity. We know, instinctively, there is a time to be born and a time to die.
That wisdom from Ecclesiastes is the theme of five new novels, which, if they did not give me a taste of immortality, at least made me feel like the week would never end. The coincidence of their arrival is a little creepy, but it suggests the growing relevance of this subject for a generation reviewing itineraries to the undiscovered country with deep ambivalence. In shades of comedy and tragedy, realism and fantasy, these contemporary authors dig up a lot of old conceits and, like Dr. Frankenstein, zap them to life with mixed results.
Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time (Viking) is a quirky romcom dusted with philosophical observations. “I am old,” begins the narrator, and he is not kidding: Tom was born in 1581 with a condition called anageria, which makes him age about 15 times slower than the rest of us. That might sound great, but it has been no end of trouble for Tom since losing his mother to a French witch finder who accused her of enchantment. Now, in the early 21st century, he is sick of changing his identity every eight years. He just wants to settle in London and teach high school history, a subject he is exceptionally well qualified to teach. (After all, he once worked for Shakespeare.) But the secret organization that protects people such as Tom will not leave him alone. Or let him fall in love. Haig, who lives in England, brings a delightfully witty touch to this poignant novel. His hero is just like us, an ordinary 439-year-old guy trying to figure out “how do you inhabit the now you are in? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other nows from getting in? How, in short, do you live?”
Rachel, the 2,000-year-old heroine of Dara Horn’s Eternal Life (Norton), has the opposite problem: She wants to know how to die. A terrible bargain to save her son back in ancient Jerusalem cursed her with a life that never ends. Now Rachel cannot stand “the absolute loneliness, the bottomless homesick loneliness of years upon years of lies, the deep cold void of a loneliness no mortal can imagine.” She has buried enough husbands and outlived enough children. In her current iteration — her favorite so far — she is an 84-year-old grandmother in New York City, and she wants it to stop here. Perhaps her granddaughter, a doctor, can help, but how to convince her without sounding crazy? I have been in love with Horn’s work since her first gorgeous novel, “In the Image,” appeared in 2002. This new one feels lighter, with moments of broad comedy amid the grief, but it still shimmers with Horn’s signature blend of tragedy and spirituality.
Chloe Benjamin’s debut novel, The Immortalists (Putnam), which jumped immediately onto the bestseller list, approaches the end of life with a classic slumber-party question: What if you knew exactly when you were going to die? In the prologue, four young siblings in New York City scrape together their money to see a fortuneteller who reveals each child’s eventual death-date. That spooks the kids, of course, but the only real magic here is Benjamin’s storytelling. What follows is a poignant quartet of linked novellas: one for each sibling as an adult. Despite the novel’s whimsical opening, this is largely a story of sadness and smothered hope. The youngest boy abandons his family for the sexual liberation of San Francisco just as a strange new cancer starts killing gay men. His older brother is convinced he can make the fortuneteller pay for taking advantage of his siblings, but the real damage has nothing to do with that old fraud and everything to do with his own obsession. The final story, about a sister doing longevity research, offers a tender counterbalance to these tragedies. It is a testimony of love, which, in the end, may be the only kind of eternal life available to us on Earth.
Not so fast, Stanley Bing would say. His zany science fiction novel Immortal Life (Simon & Schuster) sparks along the cutting edge of immortality technology. Arthur Vogel, the solar system’s wealthiest man, has no intention of going gentle into that good night. At 127, his body is mostly made up of synthetic parts around a “desiccated nugget of flesh.” Every morning he snaps on bionic legs and pops in electronic eyes. His 3-D printer creates a fresh phallus for each amorous engagement. But “there were limits to the art of life extension,” Bing warns. Vogel’s scheme is to build a young body into which his consciousness can be transferred, “a permanent solution to the problem of death.” There’s only one hitch: That newly created body, named Gene, is not so keen on serving as Vogel’s receptacle, which leads to a violent conflict with worldwide implications. Yes, the story is corny, but Stanley Bing — the pen name for Gil Schwartz — has been poking fun at business for decades, and his satire of absurd gadgets, virtual life and techno-billionaires flips all the right switches.
Thomas Pierce approaches the interplay of technology and immortality with considerably more subtlety in his debut novel, The Afterlives (Riverhead). The story opens as 33-year-old Jim Byrd is revived from sudden cardiac arrest. He is happy to be back but dismayed that during the minutes he was technically dead he “saw nothing. No light, no tunnels, no angels.” That would seem to snuff out prospects for the great beyond. Yet Jim, a loan officer, ends up approving the mortgage for an old building that may be haunted. Pierce, one of the National Book Foundation’s recent 5 Under 35 Award winners, wanders wherever the spirit moves him, which may frustrate readers looking for drama, but I was enchanted by his thoughtful ruminations and wry comments about church and spirituality. Intercalary chapters about the haunted house’s original residents vibrate with ectoplastic energy. Pierce is particularly unsettling when he describes a future — not too far off — when holograms and artificial intelligence replace many of our interactions with actual people: a different species of immortality that will probably arrive before the last trump.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.