Social scientist Margaret Gullette has published a book called "Aged by Culture," which argues that elderly attitudes prescribe the course of physical decline more than our chromosomes do (reviewed Jan. 13). I was particularly interested because my graduating class is gearing up for a landmark college reunion amid the usual mutterings about who looks great and who is "showing a lot of courage." My own anxieties in that department weren't quelled when my daughter reassured me that I'm not old, I'm "just halfway through."
And now, a creepy new novel by Andrew Greer has disrupted my napping attitudes about age more than anything else I've read. "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" tells the story of a man born with a 70-year-old body that ages backwards.
It sounds like one of those tiresome concept books like the far-too-popular "Time Traveler's Wife" now on the bestseller list. But two years ago, Greer published a beautiful debut novel about astronomers whose romance follows the periodic reappearance of a comet. So, he'd already proven that he was an author who could transform a narrative gimmick into a moving story of real insight. (And besides, plenty of great stories hang on narrative gimmicks: gossiping on the way to Canterbury; chasing a white whale around the world; wearing a red A for the rest of her life. Gimmicks don't kill novels, authors kill novels.)
The secret to Greer's success in "Max Tivoli" is his delightfully overwrought voice, his willingness to luxuriate in Victorian conceits of self-pity, love, and confession. For a modern author, it requires balancing on the razor's edge between parody and profundity, and Greer sways precariously between the two in a way that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him.
The story comes to us as a long love letter written by Max at the end of his life when he looks like a 12-year-old boy. Starting with his birth in 1871, he writes, "I burst into the world as if from the other end of life." No one in his parents' wealthy San Francisco neighborhood had ever seen anything like him, "a face reupholstered in elephant's skin," smelling "like a book, musty and lovely but wrong." His gentle parents reassure him that he's special but keep him cloistered away until he's old enough to understand the cardinal rule of his life: "Be what they think you are."
Of course, that's the heart of the "age problem," according to Dr. Gullette, this crushing weight of calcified opinion that forms how we should act and think according to the appearance of our bodies. By turning that problem upside down - making us consider the plight of an old man nervously dating for the first time or a little boy shrewdly critiquing his much younger teacher's dull lecture - Greer forces us to consider how tightly we've bound certain feelings and expectations to the calendar.
The first time his parents risk taking him to the circus - in a San Francisco described with wonderful period detail - Max is a child, trying his hardest to behave like a convincing older man. He forms an unlikely friendship with another boy named Hughie, who soon learns his secret and remains loyal to Max throughout their lives, even as they gradually approach each other's age and then, at 35, "continue in opposite directions toward age and youth, respectively."
Hughie is out of step with the dominant culture in other ways that make him sympathetic to Max's plight, but he's honest enough to give his friend good advice. "You have to decide," he tells Max one day, "whether to be old or young, and I think you've been old long enough."
It's Hughie who counsels Max through his lifelong desire for Alice Levy, a desire that's repeatedly thwarted by his strange condition and her fleeting heart. They meet when she's 14 and Max is an awkward 16, "with a gorgeous streaked beard, looking positively presidential."
Given that Alice and her amorous widowed mother think Max is 54, you can probably anticipate the hijinks that ensue. ("How Greek," Hughie remarks.) And while it's funny, it's also painful for everyone involved, particularly Max, who spends the rest of his youthening years feeling like "the widow of his own hopes," searching desperately for Alice around the country.
As a deathbed (birthbed?) confession, the story maintains just the right claustrophobic tone, marked by sparks of profundity in a perfect Victorian voice. "It takes too much imagination to see the sorrows of people we take for happy," he writes. "Their real battles take place, like those of the stars in some realm of light imperceptible to the human eye. It is a feat of the mind to guess another's heart."
Of course, none of us has experienced anything like Max's desperate race against youth to find Alice, but we can't help feeling unnerved by the way his forlorn love resonates. Several times, he refers to himself as a "monster," and indeed, he inspires the same strange pity elicited by Dracula or Frankenstein's monster. Racked by their own insatiable desires, these earthly creatures remind us of our own pitiable yearnings. That startling sense of sympathy for Max's bizarre situation is perhaps the novel's greatest accomplishment. It's just the shock we need to fracture old attitudes about age and love.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the books section to Ron Charles.