I always think it’s rather brave when I see a novel or a movie with a title like this. You’d better be pretty confident about your product, knowing that you are risking some smart-ass, less-than-clever critic heading their review “I couldn’t care LESS,” or “I could really use LESS of this book,” yada yada yada. Even if critics like it, they are going to be tempted to say something like “I want more of LESS!” So, points to Andrew Sean Greer for braving that potential disaster.
Obvious puns aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Reviews would have you believe that your sides will be splitting with laughter, which is just not the case, and I’m glad. If I want something side-splittingly funny, I’ll read Justin Bieber’s autobiography. Less is so much more than a comedy: it’s a novel of discovery, growth, and love.
The hero of the tale is Arthur Less, a novelist approaching his fiftieth birthday who has had limited success in his career. When he is invited to the wedding of his former lover of nine years, he faces an uncomfortable predicament: he can’t attend, because that would be too awkward; he can’t simply decline, because that would look like defeat, which would be even more humiliating. Arthur hatches a plan to be out of the country for the wedding (and also for his dreaded milestone birthday) by accepting a slew of invitations to literary events across the globe. What follows is an around-the-world spiritual awakening that takes Arthur to Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, and India. Less experiences humiliations, such as when he has to conduct an interview with a food-poisoned, vomiting author in front of a live audience in Mexico. He experiences passion, as when he meets a young man in Germany named Bastian, who becomes his paramour for the duration of his stay. Throughout his transcontinental adventure, his encounters are either ridiculous or moving, often a combination of both, as he tries to outrun middle age and thoughts of Freddy, his former love.
The humor in this novel is often sly, as in the running joke about Less’s terrible grasp of the German language (he considers himself fluent). “‘You know, your German is pretty terrible.’ Bastian tells him. ‘Not true. It is not perfect perhaps,’ Less tells him, ‘but it is excited.'” The writing can be somewhat sharp, which one would expect from a novelist writing about a novelist. When Arthur meets the Head of the Mexican conference, whom he thereafter refers to as “Head,” the Head wants to talk about Robert Brownburn, a much more successful writer whom Less lived with in his youth. Brownburn was by all accounts a genius, and people like Head never tire of asking Less what it was like, living with a genius.
“‘You and me, we’ve met geniuses. And we know we’re not like them, don’t we? What is it like to go on, knowing you are not a genius, knowing you are a mediocrity? I think it’s the worst kind of hell. . . . What about the lesser minds? Are we consigned to the flames?’
‘No, I guess,’ Less offers, ‘just to conferences like this one.'”
Along this voyage of discovery, Greer touches on some deeper themes that make me wonder if there is a degree of autobiography to this novel. In Paris, a colleague tells Less that the reason he hasn’t experienced success as a writer isn’t because he’s a bad writer, but because he’s a “bad gay.” Citing one of Arthur’s novels, the friend says:
“‘It is our duty to show something beautiful from our world. The gay world. But in your books, you make the characters suffer without reward. . . .Kalipso was beautiful. So full of sorrow. But so incredibly self-hating. A man washes ashore on an island and has a gay affair for years. But then he leaves to find his wife! You have to do better. For us.'”
It brings up an interesting point. How much responsibility does an artist have to the demographic he or she represents? Is it fair to expect a gay novelist to represent gay men? What about a female novelist, or a Latino novelist, and so on?
Through it all, this is a book about love and the expression of it. In Morocco, Less is heartbroken to hear that a close friend and his spouse are splitting up after twenty years together. Less can’t accept that a couple so perfect could fail, but the friend counters, “Twenty years of anything with another person is a success. If a band stays together twenty years, it’s a miracle. If a comedy duo stays together twenty years, they’re a triumph. Is this night a failure because it will end in an hour? Is the sun a failure because it’s going to end in a billion years? No, it’s the fucking sun. Why does a marriage not count?”
Sentimental, clever, and a bit bawdy, Less (both the novel and the man) will captivate you.