In his story collection How It Was for Me, San Francisco writer Andrew Sean Greer already demonstrated his versatility and a very self-assured craftmanship as a creator of ficiton. His 2001 novel The Path of Minor Planets is very ambitious. The jacket’s description makes it sound rather like Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours, being about three women across an expanse of time. Although the omniscient narrator burrows into the heads of Denise Lanham, who is an astronomy graduate student at the start of the novel, and Lydia Swift, who is the five-year-old daughter of Denise’s mentor, the third woman, Kathy Spivak, the wife of Dr. Swift’s main male graduate student, Eli, may be deep, but remains opaque throughout the book. By the end of the novel, I felt that I knew more of how Eli, Denise’s husband Adam, their son Josh, and the two senior astronomers, Dr. Swift and Dr. Manday, who discovered a comet in 1953.
The book does not reach back to the discovery, except insofar as there is dispute about credit for the discovery much later (with “Comet Swift” being officially labeled “Comet Swift-Manday”), before its third appearance. The book opens with the astronomers assembled on a fictional island in the Indian Ocean for the best view of the returning comet. A National Science Foundation grant paid for Drs. Swift and Manday to return to the latter’s native island, and for two male graduate students. Kathy Spivak has accompanied her husband, Dr. Swift has taken his daughter along, and Denise’s affluent mother has paid for her trip, hoping her daughter will forget the married man (Carlos) who has broken her heart.
The celebration of the comet’s return is marred by the death of a local child (an accident involving a telescope). There is no sense in which those present are cursed by the occurrence. But for all their analytic ability as scientists (Kathy was trained as a chemist), they considerably and painfully miscalculate each other. As one of Denise’s lectures explicates, computing the gravitational attraction of two objects is fairly straightforward. With more objects, the calculations become exponentially more difficult, and there are a multitude of sensate humans in Greer’s equations, making measurement and prediction far more difficult than accounting for subatomic particles in quantum physics. The astronomers are able to approximate the path of comets within the solar system, and are quicker to recognize that one of their comets (there is also the Lanham-Spivak comet, discovered later in the book) is not coming back than to recognize they have lost or irreparably broken a relationship.
Greer writes almost as well as Cunningham, and, I suspect, shares a veneration for Virginia Wolf (there are several mentions of The Waves, a book Kathy forces Eli to read). Since he has to differentiate the thoughts of many characters anyway, I don’t know why he chose to write in the third person rather than jumping from interior monologue to interior monologue. Perhaps it is my failing that I resist omniscient narrators more than I do the ventriloquism of multiple voices scored by one author.
Although I find the academic rivalries Greer portrays completely credible, and know that “Get the data now and analyze it later” is standard operating procedure in observational sciences, I am somewhat suspicious about professional astronomers being the kind of field naturalists Greer’s creations are. Also, on an admittedly very peripheral matter, I was nonplussed to have the Loma Prieta earthquake (which I remember very well occurred just after 5 p.m.) moved to morning (p. 217). How could anyone living in California (now, whether or not also in 1989) get this wrong?
The scheme of the novel is ambitious more in its temporal than in its geographic scope, though the geographic scope includes the remote island sultanate, Berkeley, a Sonoma [northern California] County farm, Manhattan, and Rome. Checking in on the characters at the intervals when Comet Swift is closest to the earth (its perihelion) and when it stops and starts back toward the sun (its aphelion) is a bold plan. The characters can and do flash back not only to early gatherings of their group, as well as to remembering and reinterpreting the previous gatherings. It is a complex narrative.
It is also one in which I had some problems getting into, so besides recommending it, I would urge readers to persist and give the book more of a chance than they routinely grant an author new to them. Important parts of the meaning of what happens in the opening 1955 section do not become clear until the 1990 perihelion, by which point some doors have been locked shut and some new ones are opening. Reader persistence is rewarded with a rich experience of multiple characters and trajectories.
Greer’s second novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a love story involving a man who ages backward in late-19th- and early-20th-century San Francisco was hailed by John Updike in the New Yorker. There is little scifi gimmickery in it–more social history, and as I said, it’s a love story (actually two love stories).