FEBRUARY 10, 2018
THE MOST COMPELLING EVIDENCE that people have always wanted what they can’t have is the abundance of stories about immortality, one of the hoariest tropes in literature. These stories tend to be of the overreaching, tortured sort: immortal beings — gods, vampires, genies, eldritch horrors — tormenting mortals or being tormented by them forever, say, or humans going to great lengths to transcend death and failing (see: Gilgamesh, the many pursuers of the Elixir of Life, Voldemort, sci-fi Übermenschen, Peter Thiel). By contrast, there is nothing special or ambitious about the immortal (or near-immortal) protagonists of two new novels other than their preternatural age: In Dara Horn’s Eternal Life, Rachel is a 2,000-year-old woman who can’t die, and in Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, the narrator is a 400-year-old man named Tom. Set partly in a 21st century seen through the eyes of people that have just about seen it all, the novels put a fine point on how our time is different from any other era in history — we have dating apps! digital currency! Trump! — and how it’s exactly the same.
How to Stop Time’s Tom Hazard was born in 1581, but he has what he calls a “condition”: he ages 15 times more slowly than the average human and thus appears in the present day to be only 41. For someone who’s been alive for more than four centuries, he’s surprisingly inexperienced in romance, a naïveté that sets the tone for the entire novel. “I have been in love only once in my life,” Tom tells us early on — with a fruit seller in Elizabethan England named Rose. They spent a few halcyon years together, but then they had a child, Marion, and people grew suspicious of Tom’s never-fleeing youth, even after they moved from Hackney to Eastcheap to Canterbury. Tom decided he needed to wrench himself away from his family — to protect them, of course — and only returned when he caught wind that Rose had the plague. She died in front of him.
Now, having returned to London as a high school history teacher, he wrestles with his feelings for the French teacher, Camille. Part of this is “the guilt of desiring someone who isn’t Rose” — 300 years later, Tom is trapped in the idea that Rose is his one true love, a hang-up that allows him to reach insights like this late in the book and have them register as big breakthroughs: “The lie I had told myself for so long — that I could exist without caring for anyone new — was just that. A lie.”
There’s also the fact that he’s now part of something called the Albatross Society led by a similarly afflicted man named Hendrich. (The members are called “albas,” short for albatrosses, once renowned for their long lives.) It’s sort of like Fight Club, but instead of fighting the members deny themselves emotional connection. Hendrich explains it to Tom this way:
The first rule is that you don’t fall in love. There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love. No staying in love. No daydreaming of love […] Don’t attach yourself to people, and try to feel as little as you possibly can for those you do meet. Because otherwise you will slowly lose your mind.
Haig has made a name for himself writing about his depression — his 2015 memoir Reasons to Stay Alive was a best seller in the United Kingdom — and about How to Stop Time he has said, “The length of time [Hazard] has lived is a metaphor for how long you feel you’ve lived in just a couple months of depression.” In this context, Hendrich is a physical manifestation of Tom’s fears of attachment and vulnerability, though he’s more comic book villain than sensitively rendered character: he meets with Tom in impeccably appointed penthouses and posh restaurants, sends him on missions to recruit other albas (or kill them if they refuse), arranges for him to start new lives in various locales, and says ominous things such as, “Life is the ultimate privilege, so I am among the most privileged people on the planet. You should be grateful too […] You are a god, Tom.” Mostly he exists as a controlling omnipresence in Tom’s consciousness.
Tom’s situation mirrors the depressive mindset, externalized into forces such as his own lack of aging and superstitious mobs. He’s fundamentally different from other people, and human connection is scarce. Witch finders kill his mother and endanger his wife and daughter, which convinces Tom that his presence infects the people he loves. “A mere knowledge of me was a danger to anyone. My very existence a curse,” he thinks. And later: “It doesn’t seem possible for me to exist and not cause pain — my own, or other people’s.” Tom even has headaches from “memory pain.” The reader feels, when sunk into the novel, exactly as he does: immobilized and uncomfortably aware of it.
One might sympathize more with Tom’s plight if the book weren’t so woefully explicit, and if the eventual lessons weren’t such easily conjured platitudes. Tom is constantly realizing the obvious: “All my life, I realize, I have been dogged by fear,” he thinks. And then: “[N]ow, I realize, I actively want to live. For the sake of life itself. For the sake of possibility and the future and the possibility of something new.” And: “I feel ready to care and be hurt and take a risk on living.” Worse, these aren’t necessarily even his ideas. Before these realizations, Tom visits two albas who deliver some advice: “There comes a time when the only way to start living is to tell the truth,” says one. “To be who you really are, even if it is dangerous.” The other, his Pacific Islander friend Omai, tells him, “You can’t live your life in fear, Tom,” and, “Love is where you find the meaning.”
Despite its central conceit, How to Stop Time fails to convince that Tom is really a product of 400 years on Earth — all his referents and opinions are those of a middle-aged man in the present day. Tom makes a jarring reference to fake news, uses Spotify, Facebook, and Twitter, and even cracks an anachronistic joke about Richard Burbage: “If he was on Tinder he’d be lucky to get a single swipe right.” And he delivers the kind of contemporary cultural criticism you’d find in a curmudgeonly hot take. Glimpsing people in a gym, he thinks,
They are all staring up at what I assume is a row of TV screens above their heads. Some of them are plugged into headphones. One is checking her iPhone as she runs. Places don’t matter to people anymore […] They always have at least one foot in the great digital nowhere.
The sense that we’ve lost something that people had in the past is always fashionable: Burbage (again) “had something else, something Elizabethans recognized in a way people in the twenty-first century no longer do: an aura.” Elsewhere, Tom makes easy rallying points that no one reading a novel today would disagree with: “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilization has become a little safer.” It all feels a bit like a missed opportunity. How to Stop Time is predicated in large part on an appreciation of history and the idea that the past is something to be learned from, so one wishes its insights — spoken by a person who’s seen centuries of history go by! — were more expansive or at least surprising, and not so confined to the present moment.
Even the way the novel gleefully name-drops historical figures feels contemporary, or at least post-modern. Tom watches Tchaikovsky conduct, walks into a 1920s Parisian bar and happens to strike up a conversation with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, dines in the same restaurant as Charlie Chaplin, goes on an expedition with Captain Cook, and plays the lute under Shakespeare’s employ. It’s a bit too touristy, this gawking at luminaries like we’re on a safari through the ages, and convenient. “If only we could find a way to stop time,” says Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, Tom’s conclusions about how to handle the past are a little too easily transferred to today’s content-crammed existence. The way to stop time, Tom concludes, is to live in the now:
[T]he thing is: you cannot know the future. You look at the news and it looks terrifying. But you can never be sure. That is the whole thing with the future. You don’t know. At some point you have to accept that you don’t know. You have to stop flicking ahead and just concentrate on the page you are on.
He sounds like a businessman earnestly relating what he’s learned after trying out a meditation app. Indeed, Tom experiences a moment of Zen calm when he’s sitting in a tropical paradise (Australia) unbothered, he notes, by wi-fi or phone reception. How 2018 is that?
While Tom spends most of the book discussing his own plight, he does gesture briefly at how difficult it would be to be near-immortal and a woman: “It’s hard enough being a man and living for four hundred years. And no one ever thinks we’re witches or worries why we don’t have children.” And one female alba hints at a past filled with her own exploits: “I’m fine on my own. I’m happier on my own. It always got too complicated. You know, the age thing. I have generally found men to be quite a disappointment.”
We get a good look at how disappointing men can be in Dara Horn’s Eternal Life, a mature, wry, uniquely female take on the problem of immortality. Rachel, the daughter of a scribe in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, loses the ability to die when she makes a vow with God to save her ailing child and remains alive for the next 2,000 years, regenerating as a young woman whenever she sets herself aflame. The difference between Rachel and Tom is striking — while Tom only meets his daughter at the very end of How to Stop Time, Rachel “raised her children, all of them. She raised them, nurtured them, watched them love or hate or succeed or fail.” And Rachel has had hundreds of children, not just one.
One of the big, oft-explored problems with immortality is that you end up alone — the people you love vanish while you watch helplessly in an everlasting hell of survivor’s guilt. But Eternal Life turns that on its head. Rachel is lonely, but she is never truly by herself:
[N]o woman is ever alone; every woman has her own unchosen assortment of parents or children or siblings or nieces or nephews or cousins or uncles or aunts, her own babies or elders or someone else’s, a clutch of needy people always hanging on her neck.
Most notably, Rachel is never alone because a man named Elazar, immortal from the same vow, follows her through the centuries proclaiming his undying love for her. She and Elazar were once madly in love — he was a priest at the temple where Rachel delivered scrolls — and it’s his child that Rachel saved to gain immortality. But that was two millennia ago, and the guy just won’t leave. Elazar’s words throughout are drenched with earnest devotion and tinged with condescension and threat. A sampling:
“You’re the only thing worth waiting for. And I have all the time in the world.”
“You need me. You just don’t know it yet.”
“I know you feel trapped right now, but there could be a very long future ahead of us. In fact, I’m sure there will be.”
“I’m not a monster, Rachel. I’m just a man who understands you better than anyone else in the world. Perhaps even including God.”
The romance in How to Stop Time is a sweet, almost cloying story about how one man loves a woman forever and ever and ever. Eternal Life is that same premise viewed from another angle: the natural progression of “one true love” is eternal pursuit of the same woman. And while unwavering love is wonderful, truly unwavering love, regardless of reciprocation, can be frightening. Rachel’s main wish is to die, in large part because that way she can finally escape Elazar.
And yet Rachel’s isn’t a simple story about a ghoulish pursuer and a victimized woman. She constantly yearns for him, waits impatiently for his arrival, kisses him with relief when he finally appears. There’s a pathology about it — trapped in a life that constantly loops, Rachel struggles with “old negative behavior patterns,” as if Elazar were a pack of cigarettes or another irresistible cupcake. As she tells a shrink: “I always go back to him. Every time […] He’s the most awful person in the world, and I’m as much in love with him now as I was when I was a girl.”
Unchanging sameness is the real demon here, and Elazar is both an escape from Rachel’s inability to change and a constant reminder of it. At some point, Rachel and Elazar even marry, and “for years, every day and every night was luminous.” But they slowly realize they can’t have kids, and Rachel decides to leave. “The problem is us,” she tells Elazar. “With you nothing grows.” Stagnation makes Rachel want to run, and it’s exactly this lesson that she tries to impart when her granddaughter Hannah, in the present, mourns how fleeting her young son’s childhood is. Hannah describes the underlying fact of death as
a secret passage underneath everything that’s always flowing with this constant stream of sorrow […] And I just keep thinking that if no one had to die, that tunnel would dry up and disappear, and all these happy things wouldn’t be so sad anymore.
Rachel’s response is one of the core lessons of Eternal Life. “That tunnel of sorrow that flows through everything?” she says. “You need that tunnel, Hannah. Nothing means anything without it.” It’s a precisely chosen image, because Rachel and Elazar’s meeting place over the years also happens to be a tunnel. They first ignite their relationship in Jerusalem in a stone conduit a hundred cubits beneath the earth far removed from the real world where Rachel and Elazar’s relationship is an impossibility. Later, in the present, Elazar finds another tunnel for Rachel. It’s a comforting hiding place, but it’s also a damp, stagnant hole in the ground, a tunnel “that led nowhere” — a dead end. It’s only when Rachel asks Hannah, who happens to be a Google-funded biologist trying to “solve death,” to figure out a science-based way to help her die that she feels hope for the first time. “Rachel did not know what would happen next. And she finally felt alive.”
Change, then, isn’t just a constant — it’s a source of hope. Horn’s all-encompassing vision embraces the potential of technological advancement, the bugbear of How to Stop Time, and while Haig’s novel fetishizes the past, Eternal Life is resolutely forward-looking — it even features a crucial plot point that involves a cryptocurrency mining rig. At the end of the book, Rachel finds herself holding a newborn in one hand and a smartphone — that symbol of our age — in the other, awash in an unusual sense of peace and possibility. And she awaits a man who “had run out to pick up a few necessities, a strange thing that young men now seemed to routinely do for their wives and children, along with dozens of other tasks she had never seen any man do, like vacuuming a rug or emptying a dishwasher.” And that, if nothing else, is hopeful indication indeed that things can change for the better.