A new book by Andrew Sean Greer is a major event, and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is as innovative as the rest of the local author's impressive oeuvre. I had the pleasure to sit down with Greer before his reading at The Booksmith last week and we talked about everything from what makes a self and the roles of literature to a phone call that might result in a film.
Greer's first novel, The Paths of Minor Planets, is a gorgeously rendered tale whose plot is connected to the orbit of a comet. His second novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, follows a man who is born with a child's mind in an old man's body and ages in reverse. Of that book, which won a California Book Award and is considered "a moment in literature," John Updike said: "This narrative feat had been attempted before, by Scott Fitzgerald and Gabriel Brownstein, but never at such length or with such loving ingenuity." (In fact, his review in The New Yorker is worth a read.) Greer's third novel, The Story of A Marriage, takes a close look at "how we can ever truly know another person" through a lens of love and war in 1950s San Francisco. The book, not without criticism, solidified Greer's standing as a major contemporary author doing important work (inspired and lyrical are often words used to describe his writing).
In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, we are again dealing with a unique treatment of time: Severely depressed after losing her brother to AIDS and separating from her longtime lover, Greta undergoes shock treatment and is transported to bygone eras and the lives she would have lived there. Only, everyone in her life comes with her. "I wanted to make time travel without paradoxes of any kind; I didn't want it to be about visiting another time, I wanted it to be about living in another time," Greer says. "An entire life in another time period; that's what interested me."
Set in 1985, 1918, and 1941, the book presents us with the impact a different set of circumstances might have on the development of a person. In 1918, for instance, Greta's gay brother is not only alive but married.
"One of the main concerns of the book is what makes a self. Are those three different people? Are they the same person? Well, when you look at your own life and you look at yourself a month ago when you got super drunk and swam across the Bay or whatever: Was that you? Or are there different people that would sort of gather together and make a personality?"
Greer points out that those looking for detailed treatment of the time periods will be disappointed.
"There's a couple people who have critiqued the book, and have wondered why Greta wasn't more of an activist trying to change things because she knows the future, and it was very interesting to me because I thought: But we know the future. I mean we know the ice is melting; there'll be no more fish in 40 years," he says. "We know the future. We're running out of oil. Like, it's not hard to figure out; you can be a denier of it, you can do nothing, but... we do as little as possible, mostly. Most of us -- I do. And what I mostly do is I try to take care of the people I love. And so I wrote a book where that's what she does. It was interesting, though, the fantasy that if you went back in time you would battle against things."
Others have asked Greer why Greta doesn't use her knowledge of the future to make a fortune, which we both kind of marveled at: I'm not trying to make a fortune now, I mused, so why would I do that in the past?
When asked what he's taken personally from this meditation, Greer gets a bit somber. "I don't put my life on the line to change the world at the moment," he says. "Honestly, that's why I think at other times I would not be... I would not change the world. It's sad to realize that."
I reassure him that he is changing the world, of course. "Through literature," he says. "One hopes that one seeds the beliefs of a generation... or something like that, right? And that you create the frame and the words for the discussion about something." He mentions that he recently befriended an Egyptian feminist revolutionary who often gets jailed for her activism. "Like, she came to my reading to support me. And I'm thinking, what am I going to do to support Egyptian democracy?"
I reply that I got most of my desire to change the world by reading books; it is they that gave me my first taste of universal concern when I was disappointed by the shortcomings I found in the world around me. Greer's response to this is interesting:
"I think the poets do the hard work of coming up with new stuff and new ways to talk about things, which, as we were saying, is a way to power: a new way to use language. And novelists read poets. Novelists write the novel. They make it into a movie. It gets into the popular culture, and suddenly everyone thinks about things in a new way. Maybe that's a terrible way to think about the power of language, but eventually it changes the culture. And it's not Hollywood that makes up that stuff. It's the poets. It's like Anne Carson came up with a new way to think about things. And it's making its way into the culture."
I ask about the film version of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells and discover that Madonna just purchased the rights. If you've read one of Greer's novels you know his prose is a sort of fantastic container for the lofty, and if you've ever doubted Madonna's taste now is your chance to come correct.