The History of Living Forever

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Jake Wolff’s debut novel The History of Living Forever is a science fiction story, a gay romance, and a Hardy Boys mystery all rolled into one. But the ultimate moral dilemma of its teenaged protagonist almost lifts the book above any specific genre.

At the centre of the story is Conrad, a high school student whose life is upended by the sudden death of his chemistry teacher and lover, Sammy, “the kind of guy who uses semicolons in text messages.”

Conrad was having an illicit affair with Sammy and his passing leaves the sensitive student reeling. After Sammy’s death, Conrad discovers his notebooks, which are filled with disjointed pieces of information about his search for an elixir of life. It is left to Conrad to pull these pieces together and complete Sammy’s work.

What could have been just a page-turning mystery is given poignancy by the stakes Conrad and his friend RJ have in discovering the elixir: each is out to save a family member from dying. The personal stories of Conrad and RJ encourage the reader to consider the ethical side of medicine we struggle with today. Who deserves to live? How much should we sacrifice of our own lives to advance medicine for the benefit of others? How long do we want to live?

Wolff consistently grounds the book in the science of the boys’ quest. He even presents us with case histories of real people, starting with Ge Hong, fourth-century scholar and first practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. Especially in its second half, the novel is immersed in the experimental details of the potion. For those whose interest in science is limited to the broad strokes of political discourse, these descriptions may seem to bog the story down somewhat, but they’re essential to give credibility to Wolff’s fantastical plot.

Emphasizing science allows Wolff to wrestle with some weighty questions about how we live our lives: Do we follow the hard data of science? Our hearts? We ignore either at our peril, Wolff seems to tell us. Conrad reveals that his mother died when he was ten years old in a house fire caused by a burning cigarette. The fire inspector told the family that she “did everything wrong: she went up when you’re supposed to go down, she traveled toward the heat and not away from it.” The message is that she might have been spared if she had only obeyed the laws of science. And in a witty Author’s Note, Wolff reminds us not to play with science: “Every recipe in this book, if ingested, will kill you. Every single one.” He ends with the cliché, “Do not try this at home.”

In one of Sammy’s journals, we discover that he believes science might well serve the needs of our emotional well-being:

There is some way to treat everything at once…what the Greeks called panakeia, the all healing. My goal is not to live forever but to live happily—to figure out what happiness means.

Luckily most of the time the book manages to address the lofty issues it deals with without losing its ability to entertain.

Review via Lambda Literary

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