Unstuck in Time: Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli

Welcome to TBR Stack! As of last week, this column is one whole year old! And speaking as someone who is terrible at both commitment and deadlines, I’m pretty proud of this fact, hence the exclamation points.

Realizing that I’ve been at this for a year has also made me think a whole lot about time, and it’s passage. I’ve been meaning to read Andrew Sean Greer for a while now, and since he just won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction last week for his comic novel Less, I figured that was a great excuse to dive into an earlier work of his that carefully walks the litfic/specfic divide. The Confessions of Max Tivoli follows the life of a man who ages backwards through time. He’s born with the mind of an infant but the body of a wizened 70-year-old, and as he simultaneously ages and de-ages, he and his family have to decide how to create a life for a person who will be forever out of step with society.

It’s a melancholy, gorgeously-written book that dances through history with a particularly skewed point of view. It’s also primarily, deliriously romantic, an old-school tale of a man falling in love, and pursuing that love no matter the cost, and without spoiling anything I’ll say that it put me through an old-fashioned wringer washing machine, emotionally speaking.

The story is told as a series of journal entries—confessions—that Max is writing out in the 1930s, as a 60-year-old man who looks like a boy of 12. The entries hop between the present (the 1930’s Midwest) and Max’s life in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Much of the tension hinges on his attempts to hide his decades of life experience while seeming like a all-American small town boy, and it’s astonishing to track how much life in America changes between his past and his present. How do you realistically play baseball and read the funny pages with the other boys when you have vivid memories of the brothels of the 1890s? When you’ve been in the trenches of World War I?

Now if this sounds familiar, it’s because F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story with a similar premise, “The Curious case of Benjamin Button,” in 1922, which was later adapted into a film with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. No, Greer had not read ”Button” when he wrote his Max Tivoli, and yes, lots of people remarked on the similarity when the movie came out, four years after the publication of his novel. Of course, Fitzgerald himself claimed that he got the idea from Twain, and finished “Button” only to discover that Samuel Butler had already included a similar story in his 1912 collection, Note-Books, so it’s fair to say that this is an evergreen idea. Greer’s execution is incredibly moving, because he takes his protagonist’s condition completely seriously.

When he’s born his father calls him a nisse. The nisse is a brownie-like creature popular in Scandinavian lore, tiny, wrinkly, and outfitted in a jolly cap, who could either help your farm prosper or dole out punishments to maids and farmhands who mistreated animals or ignored their chores, and seemingly it’s this happy acceptance of a folk creature that decides Max’s fate. When the doctor suggests putting Max in a hospital, his father insists he stay home and be part of the family. He even thinks Max will bring them luck. And so the household gradually learns to work around a toddler who looks like a tiny old man. It’s one of the maids who realizes that Max is getting younger, which leads to a whole new level of worry from the family. Simply keeping Max inside and pretending he’s elderly is one thing, but coping with a child who is actually going through puberty and adolescence all while looking like a 50-year-old…

Well, things get complicated.

I mentioned that the book is gorgeous, so before I get into the philosophical ramifications give me a few moments to throw quotes at you.

On thunderstorms:

I should explain the wetted ink; these are not tears. Last night we had a thunderstorm. We never had these in my San Francisco, so I hope I am not revealing my location too much by saying the hills east of this flat town act as nets, bagging us eel-swarms of electricity.

On an evening spent talking over coffee in a backyard:

I saw Mrs. Levy lower her head and smile; I saw Alice breathing openmouthed up to the stars, her cheeks webbed with color; I saw my old hand resting against er sleeve, desperate to tap a code of some kind to her. 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.

On sudden wealth after poverty:

I could not imagine my Alice living like a Jonah in the belly of this whale. I had thought that, like the daughter of an impoverished duchess, she would work to buy back what had been pawned in childhood: the silver, the settings, the art. That, like any of us with a broken life, she would try to resurrect the dead.

On attending a fancy dinner at a resort:

I watched the couples descending the staircase, prompt for dinner, the men carved from solid black, the women ruffled as sea dragons.

On a kiss:

I stood with my eyes wide open at this miracle, but yours were closed, rose-powdered, your knowledgable widow-fingers everywhere, touching, searching, and I was like one of those ridiculous machines that swallow a nickel and quiver deliciously for exactly two minutes. Hell, I was like anything you can think of: an aspen, a thundering timpani, a locomotive boiler about to blow his gust of steam.

On a Prohibition-era roadtrip:

The Chrysler was serviced lovingly, its rooms and compartments cleaned until they sparkled,the pipes and tubes legally liquored with its favorite fluids,the undercarriage greased until it dripped a shadow of itself on the concrete, and it was treated like a grand hotel now open for the season. Hughie and I had our hats reblocked according to the latest styles. We brought out of storage my old wicker suitcases. Travel clothes and camping equipment were purchased. The glove compartment was armed in case of highwaymen (a gun: Teddy’s army issue, forgotten when he left Hughie at last). A quiet case of booze was placed like a gangster’s body in the trunk. We shaved and perfumed ourselves—automobiling was a gentlemanly art back then—and sat in the larded leather of the seats. Fog descended in a dew and evaporated from the engine.

I mean, that sea dragon line just isn’t fair.

Greer has plotted his novel out so intricately that he’s able to slot the backwards-aging Max in around his childhood friend Hughie, who accepts his weird appearance (and later happily pretends that Max is his indulgent uncle so the two can go bar-hopping together), as well as Max’s first love, a neighbor girl named Alice, and, obviously, Max’s own family and maids. The fantasy conceit allows Greer to look at about 5 decades of life in turn of the century San Francisco, but from the perspective of a man who is always out of step with time. it also allows him to look at time itself in a fine grained way, as the young man’s mind feels the body growing younger around it, while watching his loved ones tumble forward into old age. Rather than a typical coming-of-age tale or romantic saga, this one speculative tweak makes time a character—Max is able to feel himself growing stronger and more able each passing month, yes, but how can a 17-year-old who looks like a man of 50 woo a girl his own age? How can he start a family, knowing that by the time his son or daughter reaches their teen years, he might very well look younger than they do?

This would all be fine in a genre novel, of course, but Greer’s world is one of hard facts and cold reality. Everyone else, seemingly, is “normal” and any talk of “aging backward through time” will get Max locked in an asylum. And here is the book’s masterstroke: he has to blend in with each age, which means he needs to duck out of life and reinvent himself every so often. He has to find ways to love while always knowing how finite his time is. After twenty years of looking like an elderly man, he’s finally able to go out in disguise as a distinguished fifty-something. When he meets a thirty-something woman and looks to be in his mid-forties, he knows he only has about a decade with her before he’ll begin to seem suspiciously young. How can a woman of 40, who married a man she thought was slightly her senior, wake up next to someone who is obviously, visibly thirty years old without asking a few questions? What about a decade beyond that, when the solidly-middle-aged lady is fighting wrinkles and sagginess, and her husband looks like an undergraduate? Eventually the jig will be up, and she’ll have to reckon with the fact that her husband built their life together on a lie.

Maybe these things wouldn’t matter as much now—a fifty-year-old woman could certainly marry a man of 25, if she was willing to ignore the cracks about cougars. But Greer cannily set his story in barely-pre-Gold-Rush San Francisco, so we begin the story in a time when men are still being shanghaied on the Barbary coast, and we end it before any of the characters have even an inkling of World War II. Because of this fashion and appearance is vitally important, especially for ladies, and we see how Max, as a child of wealth, has to walk around in greatcoats, vests, a bowler, a cane, in all ways trying to pantomime a gentleman of taste and breeding, while his friend Hughie gets to sport the stripey pants and colorful jackets that mark the latest men’s fashion of the 1890s. Three decades later, young Max, who has been to war, looks too young to drink—but then watches in astonishment as his friends, who all look their regular ages, are denied alcohol because of Prohibition.

The book also serves as a deliciously skewed riff on Lolita…but again, I don’t want to spoil too much here. Greer works period detail into his characters’ lives in an organic, live-in way; it never feels like he wants you to notice all of his research, but I learned a shocking amount about life in fin-de-siecle San Francisco.

This creates a great prism to see American social history. It de-familiarizes it, so even when I expected certain huge world events, like the San Francisco Earthquake or World War I, they felt newly shocking and terrifying because of how unbalanced Max’s predicament made me. And alway always since Max began at the ending, in a way, he lives his life knowing when he’ll die. How freeing it is to live forward in time—you have no idea when your death will come, and you’re free to imagine your future right up until the moment the brakes fail or the terminal diagnosis comes or the chicken bone catches in your throat. That is an incredible, but usually invisible freedom, and it’s fascinating to read a book where the main character lives his life knowing just how much thread he has left.

Above all, as I said, this book is about how people shape their lives around love, and how tiny choices and moments of ignorance can echo through decades. Max Tivoli shattered me in a good way, and gave me a great story to celebrate with TBR’s first anniversary.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another will rise in its place. Come rail against the ravages of time with her on Twitter!

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