It is a delicate task to write a book in which the main character repeatedly ruins the life of and frightens almost to death another major character and to make that protagonist sympathetic. You understand why he does what he does, you see how he fools himself into believing the consequences of his actions will not be bad as they truly unfold to be, and you watch with great empathy for both him and his victim. It is a balancing act to show such obsessive love as Andrew Sean Greer does in The Confessions of Max Tivoli
while not shirking from the end results of such love.
Let me just also add that this demanding balancing act also has to exist within the confines of an entire book built around a peculiar fantastical device. Like something quite similar to the joke conceit of the Jonathan Winters character Mearth from 70s sitcom, Mork & Mindy
, the titular protagonist is born a shriveled, decrepit old man who grows physically younger as he ages chronologically. We are spared the considerations of scale in the actual birthing process by the oddity of Max being infant-sized then rapidly growing into the size and shape and appearance of a 70 year old man. Seventy is indeed the magical number, Max’s apparent age always 70 minus his chronological age. Thus the book opens with what appears to be a twelve year old writing down his experiences over the last 58 years.
Starting from his birth in 1871, Max’s experiences also manage to form some rather fine historical set-piece writing by Greer filled with a sort of filigreed detailing, small touches here and there like a man’s vulcanized rubber tooth fillings, a beetle attached to a minuscule gold chain worn as a leashed pendant, whorehouse tricks with latch keys. And so we have here on our hands what amounts to a romanticized fantasy historical novel about the corrosive effects of obsessive love wrapped up in a morbid reflection on one’s own ever present mortality. Did I mention this is only Greer’s second novel?
While the course of the story sometimes veers into sentimentality, it never feels terribly mawkish or absurd, more an outgrowth out of a certain type of young man who grew up in a certain time and place. Greer directs him right into the kind of trouble a seventeen year old would get up to, falling in love with a girl a little younger, then stirs up the tensions with the fact of Max’s fifty year looks. Alice, the object of his affection, we get to watch grow up the normal fashion, as Max’s desperate pursuit of her, her inability to believe his tale, and his dying quest to end his life with her, slowly warp and twist her life into a thing of hidden bitterness.
Originally falling in love with Alice when she is the fourteen year old daughter of his family’s tenant, Max kisses her one night after her heart is broken by another boy. This leads to her mother packing up all their belongings and moving away, disappearing into the turn of the century, escaping the apparent child molester. When he refinds Alice, it is a charming moment, Max given a second chance at love in a strange new way. Greer knows how to sweetly slide the blade in. “This sounds like a wretchedly broken heart, you’re thinking; this sounds like revenge.” When they both confess to each other the story of their first kisses, meaning each other years ago, it is a fanciful dance of perspective, hers filling in the other half of the story, his avoiding it. Max should learn from this a lesson his entire life should have prepared him for: your perspective is not reality.
Indeed, it is Max’s inability to see past his own specific wants and desires that is the novel’s weakest element. Max ought to know better than anyone that perception can radically depart from reality and he ought to better understand Alice’s reaction to the old him of years ago and how he cast a shadow over her present life with him. That he remains so trapped in his own ideas can’t be excused by his — what shall we call it? — temporal condition because his entire life is lived according to the precept his parents instilled in him “Be what they think you are.” At one point he muses, “What do we abandon to claim our heart’s desire? What do we become?” but the question is rather moot as he never does this, even in the face of Alice’s horror.
I had, while listening, a great sense at the book’s beginning that the author wanted to write a deep, intellectual book with a fantastical conceit, wanted to show us the real world, the simpler, more profound world under all our nonsense, but it didn’t seem at first as if Greer were really capable of writing that kind of book. As things moved along, the book started to work on me, yet there remained a nagging feeling that this wasn’t smart enough, nor clever enough, not sensitive or wise enough to pierce the skin of existence quite as deeply as he wanted. I was won over to the book after some initial struggle, but that tense feeling remained until I read through many of the quotes I took from the novel, until I had time away from the actual reading of it.
And that was when it struck me how instrumental a reader can be to one’s judgment of a novel, and how correct my wife was in insisting that part of what made listening to an audiobook fundamentally different from reading it was the interpretive spin a reader brought to the words. Keeler has a saccharine voice on the high end of the register, a pleasant tootling little trumpet better suited to mystery novels wherein cats solve crimes and smoke meerschaums while dressed in feline model deerstalkers.
This story is a sad one, melancholy, bitter even, yet Keeler reads as though he were narrating one of those sweeter Hallmark Presents coming-of-age made-for-TV movies. Lines like “We all hate what we become,” referring to the self loathing that comes over us as we age, is not a sticky line of plucked heart strings, but the reader sounds like a well-coifed, friendly uncle telling you a charming tale of sleeping princesses. “The body, that pale spider, stuns the mind” is another fine phrase made a bit treacley by the narration. Occasionally, he can work his voice up to a sneering emotion, such as the elderly Max’s irritation at having to pretend to be a boy and learn the times tables, but this edge is missing throughout when it is most necessary.
It is for this reason that I have pledged to revisit this novel some months from now, long after the effects of a particularly cloying reading have vanished, long after the taint may have subsided, when I can return to Max Tivoli once more. I plan to dilute the effect prior to this by tracking down Greer’s other works, his debut novel, The Path of Minor Planets
as well as his short story collection, How It Was for Me
. It is clear from his abilities here that Greer writes with an uncommonly confident style.