Gene Doucette, 2010
the eighteenth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Christine Parker
I used to start all these writeups with a quick précis of what the book or movie was about, and I guess this time around I'll do that again. On the level of plot, Immortal is about an otherwise unremarkable man who happens to be immune to all disease and hasn't aged since his early thirties. He can be killed, but has managed to avoid this fate for tens of thousands of years. Now, however, he finds himself hunted by a villainous financier who wants to lock him away in his hidden high-tech compound and claim the secret of immortality for himself.
On the level of theme, it isn't about anything.
The immortal isn't the only unusual creature in the world of the story; unbeknownst to the general populace, it's inhabited by vampires, demons, dragons, and other creatures from folklore. In this respect it's like one of my favorite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The difference is that Buffy was heavy on theme. Sometimes overly so: the early episodes hit the "horror movie tropes as allegories for high school" conceit pretty hard. But even those that didn't were about something other than their own plots: adolescence as a tug-of-war between the irresponsibility of childhood and the responsibility of adulthood, or the importance of letting go of comfortable self-reliance and daring to trust in others. If there is any such substance behind Immortal, I can't tell what it is. It really does seem to be nothing more than, "Hey, what if there were an immortal guy?"
The answer Immortal provides is that you can have flashbacks to any point in human history and to a fair chunk of human prehistory; this is the first volume of a series, and in this installment we get flashbacks to medieval France, Prohibition Chicago, ancient Egypt, Pompeii circa the eruption, and some undated chunk of the immortal's hunter-gatherer days. These historical vignettes make for lightweight fun, though they do tend to be marred by Gore Vidal disease. What most struck me about Gore Vidal's historical fiction was his compulsion to take demythologizing history to the point of shitting on everyone and everything at all times. When George Washington appeared, Vidal would make a point of noting that he had boils on his ass. If a character's appearance lasted one paragraph, Vidal would devote a sentence in that paragraph to his bad breath. We get the same sort of thing here: "Between you and me, Plato was a hack," the immortal says. "All that crap about higher forms and caves? He was drunk when he wrote it. I know. I was there." Well struck, Gene. Scored all over that 2500-year-old philosopher. The laddishness that goes into the flashbacks is also evident in the main story, as the immortal protagonist, despite his potentially infinite lifespan, mastery of all languages, and subtle shapeshifting ability, presents himself as just a regular Joe who is bemused by the kids these days with their video games and whose goal in life is to kick back and drink beer. The immortal is also a master of all forms of hand-to-hand combat, which sort of gives you a sense of the fantasy on offer here. Will the hot young computer-savvy female supporting character instantly provide our secretly badass regular Joe with nonstop sex? Friend, how could she not?
As for that main story, it's about as generic as they come: really, is there a more shopworn plot for characters with special abilities than to have them on the run because the government or a sinister corporation wants to dissect them? Actually, I'm conflating two things here. This is a perfectly serviceable plot to hang a story on. The problem is that, in Immortal, this is the story. Whether the guy gets dissected in the lab is what we're supposed to care about. The action-thriller maneuvers are supposed to be what's entertaining us. And I confess that it was reasonably fun to learn the rules of how Doucette's brand of vampires and demons and things work, and to see how the protagonist exploited those rules in clever ways. But all the stuff about who will shoot whom and where and when, meh. It got me to thinking: it's not like I never consume disposable entertainment. I watched some basketball games this past season and what's supposed to be entertaining about those is finding out who will shoot a ball through a hoop and from where and how often. But reading is different, maybe because it requires more effort, or just because it takes more time — I'm a slow reader and am busy enough working on my own stuff that I generally only read for a few minutes at a time, waiting in line at the Cheese Board or whatnot. These days I only read a handful of books a year, so I generally hope to get more out of them than meaningless diversion.