Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1695
Andrew Sean Greer takes the epigraph for his ingenious narrative from the writings of Marcel Proust, who speaks about yearning for a perfect love even in the face of past loves that have been disappointing. The choice of Proust alerts readers to Greer's concerns with the issues of time, memory, and transgressive sexuality in his intricately structured novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli.
The work takes the form of a memoir, set down over four months in 1930 by a man who will shortly take his own life. It is written on pilfered notebooks with a stolen pen. The narrator's “confessions,” intended mainly for the eyes of a young boy, Sammy, and his mother, Alice Ramsey—but addressed as well to the reader—move back and forth in time, becoming less cryptic and more revelatory as the narrator ruminates on the past. What makes this construction unusual is Max's peculiar physical condition: Born with the physical appearance of an old man, he gets outwardly younger as time passes. Now, as someone not-quite-sixty who looks not-quite-twelve, he bemoans his condition: “Inside this wretched body I grow old. But outside—in every part of me but my mind and soul—I grow young.” The only certain point of reference is that his real age and the age he appears to be always add up to seventy; born in 1871, he thus is fated to die in 1941, the date inscribed on the gold pendant his prescient grandmother hammered for him.
Max's physical oddity can perhaps be attributed to the moment of his conception, which occurred during the blasting of Blossom Rock that opened the Golden Gate for shipping. His Danish father, who several years later will vanish, sees the resulting child as an enchanted, mythical creature. His mother is a southern debutante who will become a clairvoyant after her husband leaves her pregnant with a daughter, Mina, whom Max will always envy for her perfect normalcy. His mother copes by setting down one rule for her special son to live by: “Be what people think you are.” This ensures that he will be constantly refashioning himself, trying to deceive others through adjusting his outward mask.
Raised in isolation from other children, Max thinks of himself as completely normal until one day at Woodward's Gardens, an edenic park, he meets another boy, Hughie Dempsey, who accepts him immediately, becomes his most enduring friend, and recurrently urges him not to lie about his age. From Max's skewed perspective, Hughie is the one who looks strange, and so Greer introduces the issue of otherness, or difference, that suffuses the novel, with Max variously perceived as an ogre, a freak, or even a monster—the last an appellation that Max applies to himself, not only because of his physical strangeness but also for the moral choices he makes.
At age seventeen (but looking to be in his mid-fifties), Max meets, for the first of three extended periods, Alice Levy. The character of Alice, along with Hughie, helps provide the spine for a narrative disjointed in time. First seeing Alice after she has been bitten by a wasp, Max falls immediately in love with her; catching a glimpse of her thighs through her pantaloons only helps feed his masturbatory fantasies. Alice, though debauched by Max, is actually drawn to Hughie, but Max insists that his friend break her heart by rejecting her. Performing chores that are forbidden to Alice and her widowed mother on the Sabbath, Max succumbs to Mrs. Levy's seduction, because he had doubted anyone would ever be attracted to him. When he confesses his true age, Mrs. Levy breaks off the affair and moves away with her daughter.
Max's friendship with Hughie—who studies law at Berkeley, marries, joins the Army, and has a son who (like Max's mother) will die in a flu epidemic—continues unabated. They revisit a desolate Woodward's Gardens and patronize a brothel run by the now-wealthy Madame Dupont, formerly a maid in the Tivoli household, who wants nothing more than to be treated as a lady but is mercilessly snubbed by the wives of her former patrons.
In 1906, Max, whose looks for a brief period coincide with his real age, encounters Alice a second time. They meet after witnessing a deadly traffic crash, though she, now a widow, does not recognize him. Neither does she look the same as in his memory, for the process of aging has moved in the usual direction for her. The two marry in 1908, after Alice and her mother have lost their fortune in uninsured property in the great San Francisco earthquake, and all records of Max's birth have gone up in smoke. Within a few years, however, Alice effectively leaves him to work in a photographic studio that he buys for her, and she enters an amorous liaison with Victor Ramsey, her mentor.
Always independent and not wanting to waste her potential, Alice defies convention. She does so in her bizarre choice of clothing, choosing Turkish pants under a tunic for her wedding finery, and also in her decision to be a photographic artist, posing for and displaying pictures of herself in the nude. Even her choice of husbands seems designed to fulfill a need for various kinds of stimulation: an intellectual professor, the romantic Max, and the artistic Ramsey. So the motif of difference in Greer's novel extends to gender and sex roles as he explores the paths that are open to women by which they may define themselves. Initially, Alice was able to enter a photography contest only by signing a man's name to her work. On one of her periodic visits back to San Francisco, Max reveals his identity to Alice, but she can only conclude he is insane; afterward, he ravishes her and leaves her pregnant with Sammy (unbeknownst to Max) as she returns to Victor and her studio.
During this same period, Max becomes aware of Hughie's homosexuality when he observes him with his valet, Teddy, and later witnesses a lovers’ quarrel. Given Max's Victorian sensibilities, he responds adversely, with shock and repulsion, now judging Hughie in some way a monster like himself. The narrative voice assumed by Max in penning his occasionally self-pitying confessions might also be explained by the novel's time frame, which helps to account for the sometimes precious and overwrought style. Failed by those closest to him—Alice and now Hughie—Max joins the Army; from there, he is sent by incredulous doctors to an asylum and enters a downward spiral, only to be rescued when Hughie reappears.
Max's third and final period with Alice begins when she writes Hughie a message about herself and Sammy. Max insists that the two old friends go on a cross country journey in search of his son. Max, in appearance, is now close to Sammy's age, and so rather than be husband and father, he settles into the role of son and brother, as Alice and the man who will become her forth husband make plans to adopt him. So Max's web of deception ends with his having lived out a new myth in which the male marries and becomes husband to the mother before becoming the son.
Max does not find in the sometimes bullying and belligerent Sammy—the long-lost son who is now his adopted brother—the kind of unconditional love and acceptance he had hoped for. Along with a monetary inheritance, what Max can bequeath to Sammy is this book of his confessions. When Max celebrates his birthday with Alice and Sammy, he wishes he could reverse nature and grow physically older rather than revert backward, becoming once again the Asgar Van Daler who had married Alice. When Alice takes a commemorative photo of him, freezing his image forever at the moment when he should be on the brink of manhood, what she thought would be his future has already become his past. At the same time, the photograph, ironically, throws into question the search for eternal youth, which, for Max, has been more of a curse than a blessing.
When Hughie briefly spies Teddy during their travels, Max realizes that it is actually he himself whom Hughie has loved and physically desired all these years. In their younger, hashish-smoking days, he had been blind to the signals and not heard or understood Hughie's softly uttered words of endearment in which he confessed his love. Despite Hughie's entreaties, Max refuses to allow him to care for him; now an unsexed preadolescent, he shrinks and diminishes as he moves toward death, forcing Hughie to leave him with Alice and Sammy. Rejected by Max and mourning a love that is forever lost, Hughie drives his car into a lake and puts a bullet through his head.
Max, condemning himself for an act tantamount to murdering Hughie, makes plans to euthanize himself with drink and pills before his body becomes totally ravished with time. Yet if, in its closing pages, Greer's novel becomes a meditation on how one faces aging and dying, it also becomes an exploration of the difficulty of understanding the nature of love in all its permutations and of the destructive delusion of achieving an eternal love. For while outer differences of physical beauty and ugliness, of gender and sexuality, are visible to the eye, the human heart in all its desires is always closed off to others and so is destined to remain invisible. It is this, even more than physical love lost through the passage of time, that accounts for Max's ineffably sad feeling of aloneness at the end. Like Leontes from William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1610-1611)—to whom Max alludes in his memoir as having reverted to complacency and forgetfulness soon after the miraculous restoration of Hermione—Max has not learned the enduring compassion for others that his physical condition and unique experience ought to have taught him.
Booklist 100, no. 11 (February 1, 2004): 956.
The Christian Science Monitor 96, no. 47 (February 3, 2004): 15.
Entertainment Weekly, February 6, 2004, p. 153.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 23 (December 1, 2003): 1372.
Library Journal 129, no. 2 (February 1, 2004): 123.
New Criterion 22, no. 9 (May, 2004): 58.
The New York Times, March 30, 2004, p. E1.
The New York Times Book Review 153 (February 8, 2004): 8.
The New Yorker 79, no. 44 (January 26, 2004): 90.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 49 (December 8, 2003): 43.
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