I haven't had much patience with depressive culture lately. It's my failing, but I have to be in the mood to enjoy downers, and I simply haven't been in that mood for a while. So it says a lot that I responded to Andrew Sean Greer's 2001 novel The Path of Minor Planets the way I did. This is emphatically not a cheerful book. On the surface, it concerns a group of astronomers who gather on an exotic isle to witness the comet that one of them has discovered. A tragic accident in which a local boy falls to his death spins the narrative off into the characters' inner lives, and how they relate to one another. We check in with them at regular intervals, seeing how they've changed in the time since the comet last entered their lives.

Legends say that comets are harbingers of bad news and disaster, but all of the tragedies that befall the people in this book are decidedly man-made. Greer's writing is fluid and beautiful; the inner turmoil that the characters experience is aptly described, and their inability to connect on the levels they wish they could is often heartbreaking.

This book strikes me as having a very old-fashioned tone, which I don't necessarily intend as a compliment or as a criticism. I just mean that everything, from the cover design to the language to all the plot points (except one), reads like a book published in the '50s or '60s. It didn't capture the contemporary tone in the way a book like The Interestings did, but in a way, that's to the book's credit. It gave me a surreal feeling, perfect for a novel that wants the reader to loosen our ties to everyday concerns and regard the big picture.

From the comet's point of view, all of our problems are trivialities. But to our limited minds, we're always striving for a happy ending. Perhaps those happy endings are in short supply for this set of characters, but it's a bit freeing to realize that even if things don't work out for now, everything will work out in the end. We're all part of the intricate web of humanity, and if we never get the love we want, the career we've worked so hard for, or even a life beyond a childhood game of catch on a starry night, we're all part of the grand story. That very participation is something to cherish, and even if the novel doesn't put you in the thoughtful, pensive mood that it did for me, if nothing else, the next time you walk outside on a clear night, you'll feel compelled to look up and consider everything that's out there, watching.

The Path of Minor Planets: B


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