The History of Living Forever, Jake Wolff (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 978-0-374-17066-0, $27.00, 384pp, hc) June 2019.
Jake Wolff’s The History of Living Forever isn’t really science fiction, but it isn’t really not science fiction, either. It falls into that interstitial space. (And a hat tip to Ellen Kushner and friends for popularizing that term.)
Most of the story is set in a world we all recognize, especially if we’ve been to small town Maine and/or New York City. In Maine, 16-year-old Conrad’s high school chemistry teacher Sam has just died. This hits Conrad particularly hard because he and Sam had been searching for an immortality elixir – and they’d been having an affair, which isn’t technically illegal but is still just as off-putting as you’d think.
Conrad, however, is less concerned about that secret getting out than he is about the elixir, because he thinks it will help his father. Fortunately, Sam’s journals show up on Conrad’s doorstep and he uses them to continue the research and to process his grief. The journey that follows takes some lovely, terrifying, and weird turns as Sam’s story unfolds alongside Conrad’s.
Where that story becomes the most SFnal is the strand that picks up with the 40-year old Conrad, whose husband’s medical chip beeps one night to tell him that he has brain cancer. Wolff’s imagining of how medicine works in the future is definitely not the main point of his work, even if it twists nicely with Sam’s elixir quest.
On the whole, Wollf’s The History of Living Forever is a touching tale about fathers and sons and love that hovers on the divide between literary and genre fiction. He breaks expectations about what literary fiction should be in engaging ways – there are recipes, for example – and creates fully formed (and frequently difficult) characters. He’ll also make you think about the idea of living forever and why you’d want to in the first place.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the October 2019 issue of Locus.
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