W.W. Norton & Company
2018, 256 pp, $25.95
My mother-in-law seemed to have inexhaustible energy, raising eight children while she was a partner in her husband’s Chicago bookstore, but she died tragically before her 50th birthday. One of her last afternoons stands out in my memory. I remember watching as she sat up in bed, restlessly twisting her hands together. Then, glancing into one of the dim corners of the room, she said, drawing the words out, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve never had nothing to do before.” For both of us it was a moment of epiphany, and nothing more needed to be said; we suddenly understood the concrete meaning of the futurelessness of death. Dara Horn’s new novel, Eternal Life, imagines two characters who have made a sacred pact that consigns them to lives that will never end. Tethered to wearying and repetitive perpetuity, they cannot encounter the crossover from purpose to purposelessness that my mother-in-law experienced. The author makes it clear this is a destiny one ought not to wish for.
As with her 2013 novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, Horn has taken on a challenging project here with a light hand, crisscrossing strands of plot and a timeline stretching from the era of the Second Temple to the present day, or rather the day after today, since she imagines one of her characters as a biologist responsible for a breakthrough medication that successfully treats dementia. Although the story is fantastical, Horn buttresses her fiction with historical and biblical research, inserting part of the biography of the sage Yochanan ben Zakkai into her text, imagining him as the first son of Rachel, her protagonist, and thinking back on him as, “the wise one, the reason for everything that followed.”
The book is a hybrid of sorts, including elements of parable, dystopia, science fiction, Jewish feminism (“Never before in her life had a man done a household chore for her; nor would it happen again for another two thousand years”), and policy tract, arguing against the Silicon Valley immortalists who have invested small fortunes seeking a God pill to deliver them from death. Horn clearly enjoys the activity of spinning a tale, drawing out drama with exigent circumstances that require action and decision-making on the part of her characters. The result is an entertaining but farfetched potboiler.
At the opening of the novel, Rachel is a worn-out and cranky 84-year-old Jewish matriarch living in present-day New York, but through flashbacks we learn that this is only one of her many incarnations. Her real life began in 1st-century Jerusalem, when she was the daughter of a scribe and had an illicit love affair with a young priest named Elazar. After her arranged marriage to another man, Rachel becomes pregnant with Elazar’s son, a child prodigy. She manages to keep the secret of his paternity from everyone else and, when the boy becomes fatally ill, both she and Elazar make a sacred bargain, forfeiting their own mortality to save the precious child. According to the terms of the agreement, they are condemned to eternal life, never dying, never changing within themselves, but recurrently moving on, taking new shapes, new names and new families. The mechanics of “moving on” entail the horrifying procedure of self-immolation, literally setting themselves on fire. Although it’s hard not to associate this act with the long history of Jewish martyrdom, the novel doesn’t dwell on this. When the story begins, Rachel meditates on the burden of eternity, which she feels as an exhaustion of purpose—in her words: “Either everything matters, or everything is an outrageous waste of time.” It becomes the author’s work to test this proposition with her storyline.
Reviewers in the past have noted the sweep of Horn’s work, but I suspect some readers will find these pages imaginatively confining. In all her hundreds of incarnations (with apparently one exception), Rachel lodges continuously inside the body of a Jewish matriarch, monotonously defining herself in terms of how well the children turn out. It seems strange that the terms of a sacred vow would explicitly demand such redundancy, but that’s the nightmare scenario the author has chosen to examine. Eternal Life is popular fiction; the prose is brisk and a lot goes unexplained. The episodes that take place in ancient Jerusalem are particularly stilted, with dialogue reminiscent of 1950s Bible films. Throughout the book, the characters act like time travelers who’ve been given costumes and clues about their new and unfamiliar settings, but they’re never transplanted psychologically. In general, the romantic scenes are burdened with clichés like this one: “He grabbed her, clutching her like a drowning man, kissing her as if only her mouth could quench his burnt body’s thirst.”
For some people, the infelicities are peccadillos, and they will find pleasure in the novel’s energetic pace and the plot’s intricacies. The subject of this book, of course, is deeply serious. On the surface, Rachel made a devil’s bargain, the kind that any feminist would warn against, “to live for all your children, forever.” On the other hand, among believers, it’s not uncommon to talk about life and death in terms of mystical reversal: At the point of death, the true world overtakes the imaginary world of the living and purposelessness replaces the world where everything matters. Does that mean “everything is an outrageous waste of time”? While we’re engaged in the quotidian comings and goings of daily routine, are we living imaginary lives? These are questions that simply can’t be answered from this side of the divide.
Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.