At the centre of Andrew Sean Greer's second novel is a fantastical conceit. When Max Tivoli was born in San Francisco in 1871, he came into the world a decrepit, liver-spotted old man. The unknown disease he suffers from, to which he refers as an "ancient curse", causes his body to grow younger the older he gets, while his mind develops normally. Max has neither youth nor age, but dreams continuously of both.
This mismatch between mind and body is a simple but powerful idea. Max's condition seems unique, but the device acquires a more general significance as the novel progresses. This is a book about how our physical appearance dictates our personality, about the myriad insecurities generated by our too, too solid flesh.
We first meet Max in 1930, a man of almost 60 who looks like a young boy, scrabbling in a sandpit as he scribbles a "confession" about his obsessive love for a woman named Alice. Max befriended Alice as a girl, when she lived beneath the Tivolis' apartment. The early scenes hint at paedophilia as an adolescent Max - imprisoned in fusty middle age - attempts to seduce the 14-year-old nymphet like a clumsy Humbert Humbert.
Max's obsession intensifies as he passes backwards through puberty; and his confessions turn into a trawl through the "swamp-tank" of his sexuality, a cistern in which giant water lilies resemble a "vegetable vulva". He is a creature twisted by sexual self-loathing, with an extensive vocabulary to describe his own monstrosity (he is a "gargoyle", "golem", "ogre", "gnome"). The novel suggests that a terrifying sexuality pulses beneath the starchy wing collars of its bourgeois characters.
Yet the trick of physical reversal, so promising at first, does not work quite as well later on. Max seduces Alice afresh when he meets her by chance many years later - she does not recognise him - and persuades her to tie the knot. Their marriage lasts several years. It is ridiculous to think that a wife wouldn't notice her husband becoming younger as she starts going grey. Max's bizarre metamorpho-sis is too outlandish a conceit to sustain over a whole novel; Greer might have been better off confining it to a novella or short story.
Appropriately for a book that takes its epigraph from Marcel Proust, one of Greer's concerns is the remembrance of things past. The stylistic decorousness of this novel evokes a very 19th-century sensibility. Max dwells in his memory's twilight, meticulously recording details from his early life in copperplate phrases. A woman drops an iris in the street, for example, and the falling flower reminds him of "a frozen kiss".
Images of frozenness and freezing occur throughout: Max wants to preserve the past in the sub-zero climate of his words. But the glacial sheen that results necessarily stifles the life preserved by the confessions. When Max recalls how snow once turned San Francisco into a "dead and crystal world", he could be describing his own literary project.
Greer is undoubtedly a talented writer, and some of his sentences display real flair and panache, as in the following description of Max's conception: "As my father-to-be shucked her like a rare oyster, she wriggled like one, too." But Max's antique, affected style ("beaus' phaetons", "humbug", "lunarly bare-bosomed") and his chronic circumlocutions end up making him a peculiarly irritating character to follow. The book comes unstuck through its own narrator: Max is an abortive "mooncalf" who is able to make his confessions stillborn only.