When I received a copy of Less is Lost, the follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel I so enjoyed in 2018, I wanted to start reading immediately. But I also wanted to reread Less, to see whether it would still delight me as much as I remembered. I summoned some self-control and started at the beginning, and I’m so glad I did.
Less is the story of Arthur Less, a middling author who, to avoid RSVPing to the wedding of his former lover of nine years, accepts the invitations to every literary event around the world that he’s offered. He’s not just outrunning the humiliation of attending/not attending the wedding, but also his fast-approaching fiftieth birthday. As someone who has passed fifty between first and second readings of this novel, I better appreciated his perspective this time around. The author sums it up in this exchange between Less and a man he meets in Paris:
“Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.”
“Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”
As I observed in my initial review, the writing is clever (“He has always felt insignificant to these men, as superfluous as the extra a in quaalude“); the situations are absurd (such as conducting a one-sided interview in front of a live audience with a food-poisoned and wildly popular science fiction writer); and the novel touches on deeper themes, such as how much an artist is expected to represent his demographic (“It’s not that you’re . . . a bad writer. It’s that you’re a bad gay.”). But I had forgotten that, above all else, this is a love story. As Less is running away from former lovers–Robert Brownburn, the genius with whom Less lived when he was young, and Freddy Pelu, the aforementioned soon-to-be-wed ex-lover of nine years, who was supposed to have been a fling–he meets other men and continues to desperately seek connections while simultaneously sabotaging them. Will Less find happiness? Without giving too much away, I will assure you that it’s impossible to be melancholy at the end of this story.
So how does Less is Lost hold up? I’d say almost as well. As with many sequels to tales with happy endings, the author has to start by putting some tension back into play without ruining everything that came before. Andrew Sean Greer accomplishes this by putting our beloved Less into financial peril. When Robert Brownburn passes away, Less suddenly finds he owes the estate back-rent on “the Shack,” the small, Northern California bungalow that belonged to Robert and in which he’d been living rent free for years. Wanting nothing more than to visit his partner in Maine, Less instead accepts a series of job offers that take him across the United States, to earn money as quickly as possible.
In Less is Loss, our hero continues to find himself in ridiculous situations, always trying to succeed and somehow always falling short. He continues to reflect on whether he’s a “bad gay,” though he admits he’s definitely bad at “being gay,” and Greer explores this with his usual mingling of poignance and hilarity. “What confused him most was how sexually free every man was. . . . It seemed statistically impossible that so many men, particularly so may ordinary, clean-cut American men, could feel so carefree about sex. . . .And it was not as if these men were carefree across the board; quite the opposite. They remained uptight in so many other, familiar ways–about music, dry cleaning, cheese spreads, place settings, skin care–ways that would have pleased their mothers or even grandmothers. But when it came to sex–well, welcome to the Monkey House!”
While I enjoyed this sequel very much (and something tells me there’s another one coming), a few things made it slightly less endearing than its prize-winning companion. It may be my own personal bias, but following the protagonist’s adventures across the United States (the Southwest, the deep South, and up the East Coast) just doesn’t have the same romance as traveling across Europe. A minor quibble, certainly. The other point is that we learn more about Less’s family, which is good, except the “deadbeat father wanting to reconnect before he dies” trope is feeling old to me. It has a Lessian spin, but I am more interested in the strangers that Less meets on his travels than I am in his family history. And yet, we get poignant moments there, too, especially in an observation Less makes that we could apply to any relationship: “Realizing that we are no longer in love is not the heartbreaking sensation we imagine when we are in love–because it is no sensation at all. It is a realization made by a bystander.
I love Arthur Less with all my heart, the way you’d love an adorable puppy that keeps tripping over his own feet. As far as I’m concerned, Andrew Sean Greer can keep writing sequels. Even if they are not quite as strong as the original, I look forward to spending time with the man who keeps losing his way.