“The Confessions of Max Tivoli” by Andrew Sean Greer

A man ages backward across the decades, and the same girl keeps eluding him and breaking his heart, in a breathtaking love story that's also the season's literary breakthrough.

Topics: Fiction, What to Read, Books,

Andrew Sean Greer’s second novel has a high-concept premise that seems perfect for one of those $3 mass-market sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks. A man lives his entire life aging in reverse, born with the wrinkled, feeble, elderly body of a 70-year-old, and steadily growing younger and younger in his physical attributes and appearance. When Max is 20 years old, he looks like a man of 50; when he’s 50, he has the body of a 20-year-old and so on, until inevitably he transforms into an adolescent, a toddler, a helpless baby.

Of course, in a cheap sci-fi book, the main character’s name would have to be something that sounds like a new brand of antidepressant medication — and the story would be trite, gimmicky and shallow. Instead, “The Confessions of Max Tivoli” is a serious work of literature, written with a precision of language and a depth of feeling that doesn’t simply belie the book’s quirky premise, it transforms it, elevates it from what could have been just another clever idea to a profound meditation on life, love and the inevitability of growing old. This is similar, in a sense, to the way Nabokov’s “Lolita” not only captured the sickness and desperation of a grown man’s love for a little girl, but also transcended it, commenting on the perversion, the agony, that lies at the core of love itself.

Born in 1871 in San Francisco, Max is told at an early age by his mother, “Be what they think you are”; this advice and his medical condition doom him to an existence of constantly pretending to be someone, some age, that he’s not. The level of dissonance this causes is at first palpable — imagine having to tell people your mother is your younger sister, when in fact you’re not even a teenager — and then unbearable, when Max falls in love with Alice, a neighbor who is slightly younger than him, even though Max looks old enough to be her father.

The rest of his life — indeed, the book itself, written as a “memoir” when Max is a boy of 59 — is an ode to his love for Alice, the tale of his desperate, deceitful attempts to become a part of her life as he passes from one physical incarnation to the next. Of course, she can never know who he truly is. Imagine a middle-aged man trying to convince the teenage love of his life that he’s her age, that he isn’t just a creep. So Max lies. His challenge, then, and the only goal that gives his life meaning, is to continually mold himself to her life and her surroundings, satisfying her needs, even if his own — complete, honest intimacy with her — can never be satisfied.

“Max Tivoli” is, at its essence, a love story, not fantasy or science fiction. The themes are familiar: a love that can never be fulfilled, a passage of time that can never be stopped. But the originality of the plot makes these careworn motifs fresh and new. Greer’s near-flawless prose has the same effect. His text often reads like poetry; the cadence and imagery create feelings more than simply describe them. When Max, in the form of an older man, is sitting in the backyard next to the girl Alice, who knows nothing of his love, Greer writes: “I saw how the moon had dropped into her cup of coffee. It struggled there like a moth. Then I saw her lean forward, her mouth in a silent kiss, and as she blew on the furrowed surface to cool it, I saw the moon explode.” Even absent their context, the words communicate so much of Max’s passion, his excitement, his anguish.

If the book has one major flaw, it’s that Max’s emotion — constantly mournful, constantly lamenting the past, constantly focused on Alice — can be overpowering. As a faux-memoir, it only makes sense that the narrative tone of “Max Tivoli” remains consistent throughout the book. But at times the consistency borders almost on the static; Max’s love for Alice is so overwhelming, so nostalgic and sentimental, that his feelings for her at times lose their resonance, turning into a little more than a low, dull drone. To put it simply, for all the changing he does physically — growing younger even as he grows older — Max, as an emotional being, does not seem to change much at all.

That may be the whole point of the story, but making a point doesn’t always make for a good read. Even Humbert’s passion for Lolita, as relentless and unflinching as it is, is tempered with enough wry humor and delicious self-deprecation to keep his fanatical love from becoming mind-numbingly monotonous.

If this problem prevents “The Confessions of Max Tivoli” from being perfect, it does not stop it from being an excellent read. Plot twists and the unique premise keep us from getting bogged down in Max’s reticence. Greer teases us with Max’s identity, using the mystery of his past — and his present, as a “child” dutifully scribbling down his life story on notebook paper — to move the narrative along at an enjoyable clip. “Max Tivoli” is entertaining and engaging enough to rival any fun, lighthearted fantasy paperback, while also so poetic, and so powerful, that it should please the most particular literary critic.

Our next pick: An English corporate slimeball, his long-lost Mexican radical brother, and lots of other people collide at the 1999 Seattle street demonstrations

Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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