March 8, 2004
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.Ah yes. “Those $3 mass-market sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks” are obviously no good, since as we all know, literature begins at $22.95. And of course, in “cheap sci-fi books” people have funny names, unlike in serious works of literature. Never mind the possibility that one or two of those despised mass-market paperbacks might have a moment or two of “precision of language” or “depth of feeling.” In the knockabout world of aspirational book-chat, Farah knows what matters: trim size and cover price.
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.
I can well believe that The Confessions of Max Tivoli is a good book. If so, surely it deserves better than to be extolled by means of such a display of false oppositions (“sci-fi” versus “literature”), appeals to class prejudice (passim), and straight-up ignorance (what was the last $3 mass-market paperback you saw?). Next in Salon’s fearless cultural coverage: Chris Farah explains that this Gershwin fellow is writing serious music, unlike those cheap 25-cent “jazz” records with their silly names and their trite, gimmicky jungle beat. Wait, wait, did I mention that those cheap records are really cheap. [06:15 PM]