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Adam Leith Gollner’s quest for a genuine cure for death

Adam Leith Gollner’s new book is The Book of Immortality.

Random House

The Book of Immortality
Adam Leith Gollner
Doubleday Canada

It's 2068 and Adam Leith Gollner, who half a century ago wrote a bestselling book about fruit hunters, is at a cocktail party where the drinks are resveratrol shakes and the chatter is about memory uploading, genitalia's new-found obsolescence and stem-cell injections that will allow injured laggards to finish an ultramarathon of the circumference of the moon.

The topic of Gollner's new book is immortality, and he has managed to party into the future on an invitation from life extensionists. Their determination to prolong their biological prime leads them to press into service every vaguely promising chemical and unguent, reliant on a large dose of fantasy to keep their dream afloat – the same mindset that allows them to imagine their party is happening in 2068.

The scene, heightened by Gollner's meticulous eye for absurd detail, is everything a reader could want from a non-fiction immersion in the "science, belief and magic behind living forever." There is a certain type of non-fiction book – my favourite type – wherein the writer imbeds herself among people usually considered "fringe." In this case, Gollner, who is haunted by a dream image of a fountain that he understood to be the source of life, seeks out people who want to live forever and digs into the particulars of their philosophy and practice. For some, the answer is spiritual – the notion of the afterlife – while for others, it is a scientific endeavour. But, Gollner writes, in the end it all boils down to belief.

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The book is structured as Gollner's quest for a genuine cure for death. "We all possess the need to dream," writes the author about the universal desire for a possibility of immortality. The narrative conceit of the book requires of the reader the same suspension of disbelief; Gollner searches high and low for what his audience knows does not exist, but the point is really the journey itself.

It's a bit disingenuous, the pretense of the quest, but Gollner also manages to seem sincere in his mission. This, in combination with a gentlemanly inquisitiveness, is one of his most winning qualities. He allows himself to be beguiled by the people he meets, rather than keeping an ironic distance. Which, considering the range of his subjects, is impressive.

In the course of the book, Gollner visits a former professor, a Jesuit (now suffering from Alzheimer's – and a stark example, perhaps, of why people become interested in life extension); goes hunting for David Copperfield's fountain of youth; travels to Esalen, where a psychologist warns him about becoming "caterpillar soup" on a vision quest; visits a cryogenics lab and meets the proprietor, a man who, within seconds of his wife's death, began operating on her to prepare her for freezing; and so very much more.

There is virtually no lead he won't follow, and as the book goes on, the reader begins to flag before the writer. Interspersed with the reported portions of the book are chapters of exhaustive research on various cultural and historical approaches to longevity. Interesting as miscellany, but serving little purpose to further the story, they begin to feel like repositories of all the stuff he couldn't fit anywhere else.

But no mind – any writer who spends an evening doing karaoke with the master magician Copperfield on his private island has my admiration. After all, you only live once.

Lisan Jutras is the deputy editor of Globe Books.

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