It doesn’t take long for the reader of Andrew Sean Greer’s first novel, The Path of Minor Planets, to know that the titular minor planets refer to both this book’s comets and the earthlings obsessed (some more than others) with them. The novel proceeds to corroborate the connection of these celestial and temporal bodies, leapfrogging years at a time in doing so. Chapters coincide with the salient moments of a particular comet’s journey through the cosmos, when its orbit is nearest or furthest from Earth. So, we have chapters that jump 1965, 1971, 1977, 1983 to1990. But Greer is not overly constrained by this chronological construction, allowing himself minor retrogrades within each chapter to flashback to key events that have since passed or will come to be.
This mode of storytelling is doubly effective. On a practical level, it kept me more intrigued (as by mentioning a funeral up front but only slowly meandering towards letting me know who had died), and helped fill in some of the back story in convenient asides.
More abstractly, this framework succeeds in giving structure to the metaphors of time and observation present throughout the novel. Just as the light produced by stars in Orion’s belt must travel for millions of years to reach us, we discover plot elements long after they have occurred.
The characters, too, have time-shifted revelations: they see meaningful pictures for the first time only years after they were taken; they read a note in a margin left by a lover long gone; they deduce deceptions too late to thwart malicious designs. Time/space is a key element of the stories told within Minor Planets, and the structure appropriately reflects this.
Simile and metaphor are some of Greer’s greatest strengths, but he can tend to favor them too much. Too often do we read that the light through a keyhole illuminates a portion of the floor as a chess piece, or that intrapersonal interactions are not unlike gravities, whose subtle shifts can send comets on entirely new orbits. At times, these observations hint that Greer possibly has an (unjustified) mistrust in his skills as a storyteller. At other times, the clever similes, despite their aptness, seem to keep a reader from really getting to the heart of the moment–like one paintbrush stroke too many. The moments where Greer trusts the sentences to be bare are welcome, and not frequent enough. One of my favorites: “He would fight for her; he would do anything to keep her, to make her happy. He would hurt people, lie, go to any lengths.”
I’m glad to consider the ambiguous “any lengths” on my own, with the lack of specifics amplifying the possibilities.
This is not to say that I did not enjoy the book, although Greer’s [macro|micro] cosmic language often sowed the seeds for my personal, tangential contemplations, that, while personally gratifying, often kept the novel and its characters at arm’s length.
Of course, I find it difficult to separate one writer’s work from his others. Consider the opening of Greer’s other novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli: “We are each the love of someone’s life” says Max, the narrator, who wastes no time in adding, “. . . There is a dead body to explain,” thereby feeding my own low brow page-turner pangs with a healthy dose of elegant, thoughtful and heartbreaking insight. While The Path of Minor Planets is very much in the same vein as Confessions, I prefer the latter’s smaller cast of characters and more restrained prose. All the time I read The Path of Minor Planets, I couldn’t help but think of the ways in which it was not quite right. Which is, I guess, is a kind of backhanded compliment–lesser books would have simply been discarded, unread. There is enough here to provide an entertaining read, and enough to hold it to a higher standard.
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