The Confessions of Max Tivoli
by Andrew Sean Greer
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux
288 pages, 2004
Hope I Don't Die Before I Grow Young
Reviewed by Edward Champion
Max Tivoli ages backwards. When he appears 31, in five years time, he will appear 26. He lives a life where wrinkles wash away and hair darkens. Max keeps a gold pendant with the year that he will die, presumably dissolving into a spermatozoa. But if there's any good news, he'll never have to worry about cholesterol levels again.
That's the premise of Andrew Sean Greer's third book, The Confessions of Max Tivoli. It's so good, it may give undue credence to the phrase "terrible twos." It's to Greer's great credit that he keeps us so involved with Max's struggles that we never question the premise. Tivoli, much like Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, deals with the recontextualization of love and existence. But Greer does Niffenegger one better. Beyond its heartbreaking revelations, Tivoli is surprisingly lyrical and, at times, a downright magical mediation.
Greer is very familiar with remembrances of grad school past. O. Henry, Shakespeare, Marianne Wiggins, Jack London and Guy de Maupassant, to say nothing of deeper classical sources, are just some of the references within. It can't be a coincidence that Max was born in 1871, the same year as Proust. While there is no madeleine tea (nor oolong for that matter), there is a bed in which Max jots down his thoughts and memories. But this bed is less solitary than Marcel's. There's a kid named Sammy, a caretaker named Mrs. Ramsey and a loving dog. We learn more about this motley bunch as the novel progresses.
It helps that Max's condition is carefully concealed. Max's secret may be the ultimate skeleton in the closet but, like any secret, the most unexpected people unearth it, with the most unexpected results. Throughout the book, there is the interesting suggestion that Max's difference may be an aberration harmless to others, but that knowledge of it will turn people into wanton agitators. The book is very careful to delineate consciousness from condition.
Greer is a smart enough writer to allow the comparative changes in urban locales (e.g., the socioeconomic transitions in the neighborhood that Max grows up in) to have a more felt impact on Max. As electricity becomes de rigueur, Max remains relatively uneasy and often frightened about turning on lights. The little things that we take for granted matter greatly in Max's world. Perhaps because his faculties are actually improving with age, appearances to the contrary.
And it's interesting that Greer has framed Max's lifelong physical height in such a palindromic manner, not even giving Max the benefit of total reverse linearity. He begins his life small, with liver spots and white hair. Near the end of his life, he shrinks into a 12-year old at the onset of puberty: the age at which he tells his story. It's a tragic V-shaped trajectory. And the ultimate irony is that Max's wisdom is inversely proportional to his preternatural obsolescence.
Max's life is also framed within the context of literal events and mythological references. His parents first conceive during the detonation of Blossom Rock. His father compares him immediately to a nisse, a four-foot "household spirit" in Scandinavian folklore. He first encounters the love of his life being bitten by a wasp. His mother pricks her thumb after a life-altering event. Even the terms of endearment addressed to man take on an understated lyricism ("little bear"). Greer also has fun with Freud. At one point in the novel, we wonder whether it's such an advantage to be "innocent" in the arms of an experienced paramour.
Greer is a master of particulars. We become so attached to Max's efforts to forge a life that early imagery -- such as an old man playing in a sandbox or white curls collected in a baby book -- becomes heartbreakingly poignant in later sections. This penchant for particulars spills over into wordplay. Max notes that there are two classes: "the chivalry and the shovelry." At a ceremony, one character wears "an enormous sprig of stephanotis in the accidental shape of Prussia" in his buttonhole. And there are conversational details, such as Max's mother-in-law being taken with the phrase "positively Shakespearean."
The novel does have its problems. Greer's poetics wane shortly before the final section. The ending isn't nearly as bewitching as everything leading up to it suggests. A lifelong friend's major revelation comes across as a meaningless ploy to maintain interest. Greer even gives Max a sister, but she only exists as a "normal" sibling, makes a token appearance, then disappears after Max expresses commonplace envy. Greer also has a fey obsession with scientific nomenclature ("gamma rays") that feels three decades ahead of its time. And the manuscript's tendency to address specific characters in second person becomes grating.
More criminally, Greer stops pushing the envelope late in the novel. Sure, Max the wise child can be found drinking bootleg gin. But what of his sexual appetites? Or a mid-life crisis? There is a lost weekend episode near the end, but it comes across as a lackluster byway to take the plot to the next level. The language becomes less beguiling and more pedestrian in the last two sections. Even the references dissolve into slack similes, with outside historical events reduced to chapbook notations. Then again, this may be Greer's canny way (again, with a nod to Proust) of communicating to us that incidents closer to us are concrete, while distant memories are more lyrical.
Still, these are minimal complaints. Greer is only 33, yet he's produced a sagacious work bristling with heartfelt observations on life and love, and how growing older, no matter how it's done, is irrevocably tied into other lives. | March 2004
Edward Champion is a writer in San Francisco. His satirical riffs on books can be experienced at his blog, Return of the Reluctant. He is currently prepping his play, "Wrestling an Alligator," for the San Francisco Fringe Festival.