Friday, November 14, 2008

Young at Heart

I love reading fiction, but I'd like it to seem like fact. I've never been a fan of science fiction, I can only take magical realism in small doses, and I'm willing to suspend disbelief only if there's a really good reason for doing so. So why did I choose a book with the patently impossible premise that a person can be born looking like an old man and then age backwards towards infancy? That's the proposition Andrew Sean Greer asked me to accept in The Confessions of Max Tivoli. I was reluctant, because it seemed like such a gimmick. How could I stay interested in a character who couldn't possibly exist in real life? Wouldn't it be like reading a Superman comic book? But I had enjoyed his novel The Story of a Marriage very much (see my earlier blog) so I decided to give it a try.

Greer's opening sentence is “We are each the love of someone's life”. That is the beginning of the confession that Max Tivoli, an eleven year old boy sitting in a sandbox, is scribbling in his notebook on April 25, 1930. In the very first paragraph Max outlines the story he is about to tell: “There is a dead body to explain. A woman three times loved. A friend betrayed. And a boy long sought for”. And although Max looks to the world like a child, he is almost sixty years old. A pretty intriguing first page. Plus, Greer has again set his novel in San Francisco, this time at the turn of the century, so we are given some fascinating descriptions of how the city looked in Victorian times. And of course no San Francisco novel about this era would be complete without using the violent appearance of Mother Nature to move the plot along.

This is not the first novel I've read where a character felt trapped in the wrong body (remember Middlesex?), but imagine feeling the first adolescent stirrings of love and attraction when you look like a man over fifty. Poor Max longs for the lovely young Alice while her mother assumes his intentions are toward her. As time passes and Max grows physically younger as Alice grows older, their paths cross and recross. Greer sometimes has to strain to make his characters meet again, and they occasionally seem more of the modern era then they should. But he succeeds in creating a character who is much more than a freak of nature. The novel really is about love, and by the end I was much more aware of Max's humanity, with all its flaws, than his deformity.


  1. Apparently this year's award for Best Director from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures goes to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" which is to be released on 12.25.08. What's really curious is that the movie is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald written in the 1920s about a man who is born in his eighties and ages backwards! I wonder if Andrew Sean Greer acknowledges any influence. Charlotte, maybe you could read the short story and make a comparison.

  2. Greer does acknowledge the Fitzgerald story as a precedent, which was in turn inspired by a Mark Twain remark that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. Greer also recalls reading "The Sword and the Stone" as a child. In that story Merlin ages backwards. I'll try to track down the Fitzgerald story.