Before Max Tivoli will elucidate his many confessions, he begs for understanding from his imagined readers: the son who passes for his brother and the ex-wife who doesn’t recognize him and who now passes for his adoptive mother. You see, Max Tivoli is a 60-year-old man writing his confessions from a playground sandbox in the guise of a 12-year-old boy.
“I have so much to explain, but first you must believe:
Inside this wretched body, I grow old. But outside—in every part of me but my mind and soul—I grow young.”
The premise of Montana M.F.A. graduate Andrew Sean Greer’s third book, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, is neither implausible nor confusing. Conceived in 1871 inside a deserted heliograph station in San Francisco at the very moment when Blossom Rock is dynamited into the harbor, one possible—and not humorless—theory is that the sudden explosion jolted his cells backwards. “Was my mother so shocked by the sound, or so saddened by herself, that she distorted what little existed of me? It seems ludicrous, but my mother fretted until her death over the price she paid for love.”
Born a baby, but with the wizened appearance of an old man (complete with gray hair and liver spots), Max grows older mentally like any child, but his body ages backwards, growing younger each year. “He is lucky,” maintained his father at Max’s birth, mistaking the wrinkled baby for a nisse, a gnomish creature from Danish folklore. But the apparent fountain of youth belies Max Tivoli, who believes his life has been a kind of curse: “I looked like a creature out of myth but underneath I was the same as any boy—just as now I look like a boy in knickers and a cap, though inside I’m the same as any regretful old man.” Yet Max’s regrets are not the same as a 60-year-old man’s who has aged in the traditional way, and he offers his life like a confession before death. He must do so before his body regresses into babyhood. “Shrinking, gaining baby fat, losing my mind and memories, my speech, until I could only crawl across the floor...”
His mother advises, “Be what they think you are,” and Max tries to do just that, playing whatever role his physical appearance imposes on him: donning the beard and elegant clothes of a distinguished man in his 50s when he is in fact 17. “The Rule,” as he calls his mother’s dictum, forces Max to adopt an unnatural posture of deceit toward the world, and in it he deems himself a monster.
Greer’s remarkable novel is one of purposeful imagination. If Gregor Samson’s metamorphosis as imagined by Kafka exists to highlight our own existential crises, so must Max Tivoli’s losing battle with time exist to magnify and intensify our own emotions.
When Alice Levy, the 14-year-old daughter of a widowed lodger, runs outside reeling from a wasp sting to the back of her neck, Max finds the love of his life. That 17-year-old Max resembles an affable older gentleman in his mid-50s and attracts Alice’s mother instead of Alice herself is not the only problem. Lovestruck Max takes one step too far and appears to Alice as Humbert Humbert must have to his Lolita, and Alice’s mother whisks her away to places unknown. But Max’s affliction has one saving grace—he gets to woo Alice back. In fact, he gets two more chances throughout his life, each time appearing so much younger that she cannot recognize him. The intensity of Max’s love for Alice serves as the anchor of the novel. And as the opening line might imply—“We are each the love of someone’s life”—Max is never wholly successful at winning her.
The story itself is relatively simple: Unrequited love is never quite forgotten, and over time the most sincere and profound loves hardly diminish. Max Tivoli is never cloying, tiresome or overly sentimental in his love. The conceptual ingenuity Greer establishes in the novel constitutes an important part of its revelations. As Greer teases out the intricate lines of its plot, he also presents a novel that illustrates, with delicate wisdom and prose that doesn’t overstep its lyrical tendencies, the endless frustration of desire in lives shadowed and eroded over the passage of time. Max’s experience is a version of our own, yet heightened by his peculiar condition.
At the end, we see Max’s startling confessions as a testament to the passion of a man hypersensitive to his own abnormal condition, yet sharply aware of necessary limitation. “So I have confessed it all. Nothing has been said wrong, but as I try to read over, I realize that nothing is quite right, either. I have left out a mole on Alice’s neck. And a scene of me and my wife in our new Oldsmobile, driving in the spray out by the ocean and laughing…But let it be. I’ve put down as much of my life as I can bear.”
Andrew Sean Greer visits the UM campus for a two-day workshop and a reading Friday, April 15. The reading takes place in the Dell Brown Room of Turner Hall, is free to the public and starts at 8 PM.