I was searching through my local library catalog trying to find a good audiobook for commuter listening when I saw Less (2017) by Andrew Sean Greer. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and backed up with an intriguing blurb, it captured my attention. I quickly downloaded the book and began, but I almost immediately turned it off again. This book was too clever and well-written for simple listening. Although this isn’t my favorite book of the year, I’m glad I found it, and I thought it was consistently entertaining.
Arthur Less is a middling author who is about to turn fifty. His lover for the past nine years is getting married to another man. In order to avoid the awkwardness of either going to the wedding of his ex-lover or sitting around at home by himself during the wedding of his ex-lover, Arthur sets out on a grand adventure. Lacking cash, he scrapes together various lecture, teaching, and award opportunities that will get him around the world. Less first flies to New York City where he is meant to interview the famous science-fiction author H.H.H. Mandern. Unfortunately, Arthur shows up late and H.H.H. Mandern gets food poisoning.
And so Less’s trip continues. From New York, he travels to a Spanish-speaking conference in Mexico where he doesn’t speak Spanish. He spends a day or two in Paris before heading to Italy for an award ceremony. He also hits up Germany, Morocco, India, and Japan before finally heading home.
“A white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows?”
“Jesus, I guess so.”
“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”
“Even gay?” (170)
This conversation Arthur has with a woman (a friend of a friend) in Morocco. He’s talking about his latest manuscript with her, but it also just happens to describe the very book I was reading. Less is a middle-aged white guy coming to terms with the end of a relationship, the failure of his latest book, and his aging body. And Less’s wanderings might have been boring, too, but both Greer and Less turn to the absurd to keep their readers interested. Instead of melancholy soul searching, Arthur Less bumbles his way around the world as only an oblivious American can. Many of his travails are both subtly hilarious and eerily familiar.
At the same time, we learn a little about Arthur’s old relationships. When he was only in his mid-twenties, Arthur met Robert Brownburn, the renowned and genius poet. They stayed together for many years until Arthur sabotaged the relationship. Brownburn is now elderly and doesn’t have much time left. Arthur’s latest relationship was with Freddy Pelu. Freddy is much younger than him; Arthur was actually friends with Freddy’s adopted father. Not wanting to go through the heartbreak of what he’d gone through with Brownburn, Arthur kept insisting that his relationship with Freddy was nothing serious–until Freddy got serious with someone else.
This book is well written, clever, and original. My only observation (because it’s not really a complaint) is that although all the cleverness made the novel much more enjoyable, it also kept reminding me that I was reading a piece of literature. I had a hard time feeling any attachment to Arthur Less. It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I could understand where he was coming from.
For instance, Greer makes the connection between the book he has written and the book Less is trying to write. He points out that Less simply threw in some outrageous comedy to keep his readers engaged with the white, middle-aged American man walking around with all his heartache. But that’s exactly what Greer is doing with us in Less. And once you see the “making of,” it’s hard to get lost in the story. It also felt weird when the characters in the book were discussing the Pulitzer Prize in a book that won the Pulitzer Prize. In some ways, it reminded me of Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Literary critics seem to love both of these books, but I felt that both authors were playing some sort of game. Greer told his audience that he was adding the ridiculous to make Arthur more likable, and Halliday was playing with the knowledge of her relationship with Philip Roth–both making winking nods to inner literary circles.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.