Books Reviewed: How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig and Forever, by Pete Hamill

(Full disclosure: Matt is the nephew of my good friend James Haig. I heard Matt speak at a recent Marin County bookstore where I purchased his book. I’ve not read any of his other writing, but see from Twitter that he has a large and loyal fan base. It was Matt who told me that he was not aware of the 2003 Pete Hamill novel on the subject of immortality and that he’d never visited Arizona before writing the book.)

How to Stop Time

How to Stop Time CoverI enjoyed English author Matt Haig’s latest novel How to Stop Time not only for the wonderfully evocative portrait of the many different historical periods, but for the way these are woven together into a believable whole in the protagonist Tom’s life.

Haig does this in so many ways, one example being the close of the main para on p. 325 which takes us “back down the path from where we came…as sycamore seeds spin and fall in this same forest.”

I enjoyed the focus on the interior life of the protagonist as much as the exterior events. And the subtle digs at our current crazy political situation.

While he writes stunning prose, Haig is obviously a poet at heart. The two sentences at the bottom of p.313 describing the world that remains after the death of one of the characters took my breath away.

This is a wonderful book, hugely enjoyable.

Forever

Forever - CoverIronically, the author claims not to be aware of Pete Hamill’s Forever: A Novel which would be a fine companion read.

There are many differences between the two novels, but they share a common theme. Hamill takes over 250 pages before his protagonist is granted a life many times longer than the usual span. Haig’s character is born with a rare condition shared by others.

Tom Hazard is free to wander the world, and one of the joys of Haig’s book is not only the way he evokes different times, but also multiple locations: Paris, the South Seas, London and New York. One of the conditions of Cormac O’Connor’s life, once he’s made into an immortal, is that he can never leave Manhattan. So he watches as New York grows from the tiny pre-Revolutionary settlement into the 21st century metropolis. The world changes around Cormac, while for Tom changes in latitudes fill the decades.

Both men have to deal with the challenge of outlasting the generations of people they live among. This begins early on for Tom when he escapes superstitious 17th Century witch-hunters and it drives him on his travels to distant lands.

Cormac is a witness to the excesses of New York: the violence, jails, brothels, plagues, Tammany Hall. Hamill relishes the tide of history that sweeps over New York, especially Irish New York.

In the modern world Tom becomes a history teacher, while Cormac tells people he’s “a kind of historian” (p. 482). Both men must be careful not to reveal too much about the past eras they in fact lived through.

Both also deal with the psychological burden of ageless living. Cormac’s “mind felt like sludge…his body felt young, and looked young, but his brain felt ancient.” (p.393) Tom Hazard suffers from debilitating headaches that mark the challenge of endless life:

“The longer you live, the harder it becomes…Forever, Emily Dickinson said, is composed of nows. But how do you inhabit the now you are in? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other nows from getting in? … The memories swell. The headaches grow.” (p. 19)

Cormac is clearly Hamill’s alter ego: an Irish-American reporter in New York. He writes about the city he knows so well, in a similar way that Woody Allen’s Manhattan is a tribute to his insider knowledge of the Big Apple.

Both authors examine the peculiar challenges of relationships with women and children who have ageless lovers and fathers. Both employ the trope of the challenge of love outlasting the passage of time:

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Shakespeare – Sonnet 116

Tom Hazard is a vehicle for Haig’s research into different eras and locations. He confessed to having written about Arizona (very convincingly) before ever visiting it. But there again, neither he nor Hamill visited past times, except in their imaginations.

What price immortality?

Both of these novels are sobering checks on the wishes of some of the more outlandish desires of Silicon Valley billionaires to achieve immortality:

Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, plans to live to be 120. Compared with some other tech billionaires, he doesn’t seem particularly ambitious. Dmitry Itskov, the “godfather” of the Russian Internet, says his goal is to live to 10,000; Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, finds the notion of accepting mortality “incomprehensible,” and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, hopes to someday “cure death.” These titans of tech aren’t being ridiculous, or even vainglorious; their quests are based on real, emerging science that could fundamentally change what we know about life and about death.

As Adi Da Samraj has written:

“Fear of death is fear of surrender to Infinity. Learn to surrender, to exist at Infinity while alive, and fear of death dissolves. Fear of death is fear of the Unknown. Realize the Wonder, the Eternal Unknowability of the Totality of Existence, and fear of death is transcended.”

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Nicely done,Mr. Griffin!



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