With ‘The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells,’ Andrew Sean Greer again bends time to his will

Andrew Sean Greer has been fiddling with the hands on his watch again. His novels are often preoccupied with how we interact with time. That immensely clever bestseller “The Confessions of Max Tivoli” featured a 70-year-old narrator who aged backward. His debut novel, “The Path of Minor Planets,” synchronized a series of relationships to the cycles of a comet. And now comes another high-concept story, “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells,” or, as I like to think of it, “The Time Traveler’s Strife.”

The book opens in New York in 1985, but don’t sit down — we won’t be here long. Abandoned by her partner and devastated by the death of her gay twin brother, Greta Wells pursues every treatment she can think of to raise her spirits. Under the advice of a flamboyant aunt who lives in the downstairs apartment, Greta runs through antidepressants from Ambivalon to zimelidine. She tries acupressure, yoga, pot, jogging, colonics, bran, etc., but nothing can “shake the nightmare” of her grief. “How I longed to live in any time but this one,” she says just before visiting Dr. Cerletti to receive electroconvulsive therapy.

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Shockingly, the good doctor’s first treatment sends Greta spinning back to 1918. There she finds herself among the same people she knew in 1985, but they’re all going about their early-20th-century lives with significant changes. In this sepia-toned version, Greta is married to her partner and waiting for him to return from the war in Europe. What’s better, her dear twin brother, Felix, is alive — though deeply closeted and engaged to a senator’s daughter.

How did we get here? Don’t ask, don’t tell. Greta handles it all with aplomb because, after all, she’s not so much a woman as a Meddling Literary Device (MLD). “With fascination, I looked around this version of my life in 1918,” she says. “I had been given this: a life in which I had been born in another century, and grew up in corsets and ribbons alongside my twin, and married my Nathan and sent him off to war. A life in which my brother lived, but did not live well.”

But — oops, look at the time! We’re late for another weekly appointment with Dr. Cerletti. Now, Greta wakes up in 1941, on the eve of Pearl Harbor. “So there were at least three lives to lead,” she summarizes, helpfully. “A life in 1918, with a husband away at war. A life in 1941, with him here by my side.” For all her time-shifting shenanigans, Greta Wells could be the daughter of H.G., but she quickly realizes that she’s not just traveling through time; she’s trading places with other Gretas: “Of course this was how our minds had connected, in that blue electric flash of madness, across the membrane of three worlds so we switched places, two Gretas and myself, and woke to different lives.”

It’s that “of course” that really slays me — the straight-faced effort to pass off this goofiness as something profound — like the formula for Flubber. “I was someone switching television channels,” Greta says, “trying to keep all the characters straight.” I can sympathize. Following Gretas back and forth across the 20th century, I felt like Bill Murray watching “The Parent Trap” on Groundhog Day.

There’s really very little room in “The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells” for anything besides tending to the complications of its rickety structure. Greer seems drawn to exploring how different historical settings create or influence our characters, but these three time periods come to us with no more than postcard details: AIDS in 1985, World War II in 1941, flu in 1918. Placing these historic tragedies on the roulette wheel of Greta’s chronographic parlor game produces the kind of blurring that novels are supposed to resist.

What Greta can’t resist, weirdly, is interfering in her brother’s affairs, no matter where in the century they happen to be. “Surely, there has to be a heaven,” she thinks. “Perhaps it was my job to make one.” More dangerous words were never spoken — given the chance to see him alive again, she prods him to acknowledge his homosexuality, prying him out of the closet like some nosy middle-school guidance counselor. “Don’t be afraid with me,” she pleads. “Be yourself. Please.” Besides the ahistorical creepiness of this plan, Greta’s titillation with her brother’s sexuality throws off the novel’s romantic focus. In all of the time periods, the Gretas are trying to “perfect their lives” by dealing with a man they love. But those various stories of marriage and adultery never generate the passion and energy of her brother’s off-stage trysts, as though the novel were nervous about concentrating on its real interest.

We’re left, then, with a highly mannered historical romance glazed with a touch of sci-fi. Almost every line is uttered in a perfumed sigh: “Grief will go — it always does,” Greta promises in one of the novel’s many self-consciously pretty passages. “But not before it forces us to do these absurd things, and hurt ourselves, and bring on suffering, because grief, that parasite, above all else does not want to die, and only in these terrible moments it creates can it feel itself thrashing back to life.”

You don’t need a time machine to experience a better novel by Greer. Just go get a copy of “The Confessions of Max Tivoli.”

Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.

THE IMPOSSIBLE LIVES
OF GRETA WELLS

By Andrew Sean Greer, Ecco. 289 pp. $26.99

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