Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practise,” wrote E. M. Forster in A Room with a View. It is this daily struggle which confronts the protagonists of Andrew Sean Greer’s beautifully observed and masterfully crafted novel, The Path of Minor Planets. Greer uses the ingenious device of a recurring comet to structure the fluctuations of his characters’ lives at intervals over a 25-year period. In a manner which evokes Virginia Woolf, he explores the devastating effects of time on the relationships we have with each other and our memory of our past selves. Greer questions when individuals are truly at their best — in the carefree youth of our twenties, the hesitance of our thirties, or the resignation of our forties. Although set against a background of cultural and political turbulence from 1965-1990, in San Francisco and Berkeley, the novel focuses on the moments which transform the routine into the remarkable.
While many young American novelists are celebrated for their difficult and obscure prose, depicting themes and characters as abstract as their writing, Greer is wise and humane, a rare bright star in a galaxy of otherwise dark matter. His protagonists are astronomers Denise and Eli, their spouses Adam and Kathy, comet discoverer Dr Swift and his young daughter Lydia. Having spent her youth striving for professional success and golden accolades, Denise wonders whether she has missed the most important prize of all. Indeed, “Her heart had little room for anyone; it was too crammed with stars. For a long time she took their distant heat for love.” Greer examines whether a career can ever be a substitute for the absence of meaningful connections with another human being.
Denise laments that her only memories are of a failed love affair and time spent gazing through a telescope. Even her scholarly efforts have not brought her the recognition she craves. “She was offered nothing. The best in her class … dozens of interviews, and she was offered nothing.” What then, Greer questions, is the purpose of such striving, if after all, nobody is watching? Denise perseveres, but finds that by her thirties, “people disappeared, and events, and opportunity.” It is then that she finally stumbles upon her life’s true passion, but incapable of acknowledging this, closes the door on lasting happiness within the space of a 30-second conversation.
Greer echoes Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in capturing so minutely the inherent fragility of human value and meaning. His protagonists, all intellectual over-achievers, have been left, in Woolf’s words, “frail barks flounder[ing] in the darkness”, without the tools to make the fundamental decisions in life. Eli’s wife Kathy has married a man who she knew could never understand or love her the way she needs, and she stays with him even when she realises he has had a long-standing affair, perhaps for the simple reason that “it turns out that you don’t end up with the people you really love; by definition you end up with the ones who stay.” If both love and the people we love are subject to an expiry date, then Swift intends to counteract the threat of ageing and death by gaining academic immortality. In his quest for scientific greatness and getting his name in the record books, he disengages himself from all earthly concerns.
If one cannot rely on established teachings to provide a guiding light, then neither can we blindly adhere to the old cliché that things will simply fall into place. Denise, Eli and Adam approach middle age, startled to find that their future lives have been fixed by the cowardice and inaction of their younger years. How can we start again, Eli muses, when we have consumed all our second chances? “You chance everything, ruin everything once again, wreck it all and still you aren’t left with a fortune.” Greer’s protagonists pursue astronomy because, while magical and exhilarating, the universe can be defined within quantifiable terms, and its problems solved by logic and reasoning. Love remains the scientists’ great mystery, no more forthcoming than an unseen comet still light years away.