Proust or Fitzgerald? The Strange Land of Book Blurbs

“A mythic, Proustian romance…a brilliant story.” –The Times (London)

I was standing in the massive line snaking through the Borders’ Close-Out sale at the local mall; it was 2pm on Friday and a strange lot of people were surrounding me, clutching their own odd picks in their arms. If I thought they were odd, they must have found me even stranger, dirt still smeared on my knees from working in the garden, wearing cut off jeans, a horrifically old shirt, and dirt-stained slip on keds. I was praying that none of the people working the registrar were people I’d gone to elementary school with.

The back cover of the book I was holding was covered in brown and blue words, but I couldn’t help but notice the Proust next to The Times. For having a blog called “What Would Proust Think,” I’ve realized I mention him rarely. Sometimes I wonder if I should be doing more Proustian analysis, but I’m really never sure of my audience. According to the nice stats of Blogger, most of the readers I get seem to be people in Eastern Europe doing searches for Banquet halls.

The book I was holding: it was The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer, the so-called Proustian book, which was on sale for a $4.49. I bought it, read it, and wondered, was I missing the obvious?

The book is styled to be Max Tivoli’s memoir–he’s writing to someone named Sammy, who we later find out is Max’s son, explaining his life to him, how he is not the child Sammy thinks he is. Max is really an old man in a child’s body. In fact, when he was born, he looked like a wizened old man, cursed to be trapped in a foreign body:

We all hate what we become. I’m not the only one; I have seen women staring at themselves in restaurant mirrors while their husbands are away, women under their own spell as they see someone they do not recognize. I have seen men back from war, squinting at themselves in shopwindows as they feel their skull beneath their skin. They thought they would shed the worst of youth and gain the best of age, but time drifted over them, sand-burying their old hopes. Mine is a very different story, but it all turns out the same.

We read about Max’s fate in life–what it is like to be a child in an old man’s body, how he grows younger each passing day, and falls in love with one woman, Alice, over and over again, as she fails to see the same soul in each different incarnation of age.

Andrew Sean Greer writes with a quiet intensity and his descriptions of pre-Earthquake San Francisco are some of the most interesting sections of the book. But I kept failing to fall for the character of Max Tivoli. He left me feeling tired and anxious, the patina of his supposed age making the novel feel stiff and unbelievable.

And Proust-like? Max Tivoli may be obsessed with one woman, but he is no where near the cataclysmic fatalism of Marcel and his obsession with Albertine. Marcel loves Albertine so entirely he becomes mad, driving her to her own death, and even then, his obsession is unending. Comparing Greer to Proust is unfair and sets Greer up for rejection. He is an interesting contemporary American writer, but is closer in proximity to someone like Michael Chabon. His novel has some beautiful moments, but they are quickly overshadowed by his own need to accomplish plot.

What also left me perplexed was the fact that none of the critics (or at least the blurbs on and in the book) noticed the similarities between this book and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” There Fitzgerald tells the story of a man, Benjamin Button, who is born as an old man and becomes physically younger as he ages. There was a terrible movie made a few years back, which I don’t recommend, but the actual short story is enchanting. It manages to capture love, loss and yearning in about 20 pages instead of Greer’s 200.

The novel was disappointing. Mostly because it is hard to accomplish the task an American master has already done. You can lose yourself in Fitzgerald’s world, but Greer is constantly reminding you of your own present. This is supposed to be a magically tale that recounts the bizarrely unbelievable, but entirely possible and compelling world in which we live.

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