‘The engine of the plot feels like a coat-hook’ – The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

tilogwThree weeks in, 2014 appears to be shaping up to be the year of disappointing books by writers that we normally like. Hard on the heels of Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens comes Andrew Sean Greer’s The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a novel whose enjoyment depends on your ability to swallow an elephant sized contrivance.

We first encounter Greta Wells in 1985, shortly after the death of her brother Felix from AIDs (her brother, being gay, has lots of gay friends and, at the opening of the novel, the gay community is in the first full flush of the disease so lots of people have recently died or are dying) – Greta is understandably upset. Depressed, she turns to a Dr Cerletti who offers her some electro-convulsive therapy – therapy which seems to transport her in time; or rather, therapy that appears to open up a divide between Greta and two other worlds, in which a version of her also exists, in which a version of her also undergoing a version of electro-convulsive therapy exists, in which she and virtually everyone she knows exists, at another time, and in subtly different ways. Each time Greta undergoes a therapy, she wakes elsewhere – in the 1914 version of Greta, in the 1941 version of Greta or back in the 1985 version of Greta. In 1985, Greta has recently split from her boyfriend Nathan. In 1914, her husband Nathan is off fighting in the war and she has taken up with a young man called Leo. In 1941, her husband Nathan is just about to leave for war. As she moves, from one time to another, she becomes aware that each Greta is aware of the move and effecting various changes in the world of that time (so, for example, 1941 Greta, possibly missing her Nathan, calls the estranged 1985 Nathan and arranges to meet).

Greer has a fine eye for period detail and recreates the times in which Greta finds herself with a keen outsider’s eye, as Greta herself points out, it takes a visitor to a strange land to notice its peculiarities. So, for example, Bloomingdale’s in 1918 is brought vividly to life:

‘Girls in fresh white blouses smiled above sparkling counters, each with a penny in hand in case they found a thief among the browsing women; they were to tap on the glass to summon the store detective. High above them, a miniature gondola set rode by: baskets that salesgirls filled with money, sending them off on to the cashier’s cage for change; how glorious the things that are gone forever!’

Here is a street scene from 1941:

‘…we matched the street we walked on, everyone in their own costumes: firemen in overalls, shopgirls in trumpet-shaped tops and blue alligator pumps, Italian street vendors selling hot sweet potatoes, and of course boys and men everywhere in brand-new uniforms from the boxes, still unironed, making their way with big duffel bags toward a train away from home.’

Later still we are transported through New York to Hell’s Kitchen, where the streets smelled ‘of bread and sugar and ginger’, ‘derelicts, addicts and whores’ huddled by the train tracks. Greer is also good on the equivocation of self: his 1985 Greta is someone who discussed and dismissed marriage with her Nathan but who is forced to embrace it, deal with it, accommodate it in other times. Similarly, her brother Felix, gay in every incarnation but dogged by times and forced to construct lies and deceptions and be the person he is beneath a façade of respectability. His concluding remarks about the difficulties of being a woman in any age mirror this acute observation too:

‘When has a woman ever been forgiven? Can you even imagine it? For I have seen the plane of being, and nowhere upon it is the woman tracing her life as she has always dreamed it. Always there are the boundaries, the rules, the questions – wouldn’t you prefer to be back home, little lady? – that break the spell of living.’

I also like the way in which Greer nods to his debut, The Path of Minor Planets in the tail of the comet that graces the end of the novel. And yet… The engine of the plot feels like a coat-hook. Greer needs a device to send a character from one time to another in order perhaps to look at ways in which the same people are subtly altered by the time in which the find themselves – but the device cannot feel like a device or it supplants, distorts and undermines the good work he is looking to accomplish. And that is exactly what happens. The device is also very choosy. There are other worlds than this, the novel suggests – which implies a multiplicity of worlds, surely – and yet only in three of them are characters representing Greta undergoing treatment. The business of the novel explores in detail the subtle shifts that the slightest effects can have – and yet in the midst of such twisting subtly, there are only three worlds And the space between treatments is not equal and so we have a week in one place and then two fleeting days elsewhere – which gives the impression that Greer liked parts of his story better than others but needed the contrivance to manufacture busyness. There is no admission of chaos here. Great Wells is the neatest time traveller in the neatest time travel story that ever lived. A version of Greta goes from 1921 to 1985 and nothing returns with her, no song, no idea, nothing that alters the age? Also Greer avoids what could arguable have brought the novel to roaring life, having the Gretas commune one with the other, a letter or a note left to bring each up to speed with what has gone on in their absence (periodically, ‘our’ Greta reads a diary belonging to another Greta but again it feels like a contrivance to clue us in on detail we wouldn’t otherwise know). The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells wears its mechanics on its sleeve.

Greta is also something of a melodramatic narrator:

‘I picture myself at that dire moment: pale in the streetlight, red hair recently cut short in a last bid for change, lips parted as I tried to think of anything left to say. Door handle open, wind rushing on, the last few minutes – I realized the flash of his glasses in the streetlight might be the last I ever saw of him.’

And don’t get me started on the speed with which she accepts her situation (she wakes up, looks about her and more or less thinks, ‘ohhhhhhhh I appear to have time travelled’… as you do). Her presence alongside a contrivance as contrived as electroconvulsive therapy that allows you travel through time fatally hobbles the book.

Now certain keen readers may feel a sense of deja vu coming to The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells – didn’t Kate Atkinson do something like this in 2013, with Life after Life? The answer is yes but The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is just different enough to dispel that particular qualm. It does, however, raise another: didn’t Greer’s earlier book, The Confessions of Max Tivoli have something of Benjamin Button about it? Why, yes it did. But again the two stories were just different enough to dispel any qualm. The issue the recurrence of Max Tivoli raises here is both plainer and more bitter: The Confessions of Max Tivoli was a much better book than The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. Sad but true.

Any Cop?: A disappointing fourth novel from Greer.


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