Less is a simple story of spoony elegance. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Andrew Sean Greer crafts a rare humorous novel for the Pulitzer committee and for readers looking to take a morose, comedic journey.
Less tells the story of novelist Arthur Less recovering into his second phase of youth — his 50s. A series of break-ups and career shortcomings have left Arthur Less on the outside looking in on an upcoming wedding to a man with whom he used to be in love. In hopes of escaping his sorrow about the nuptials, Less accepts any and every opportunity to leave his San Francisco home.
This emotional getaway leads Less to New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India, and Japan. He plays a stand-in for an ill, science fiction novelist, H.H.H. Mandern, he lectures in broken German, he receives awards he’s never heard of, and he gets locked in a hut on his last stop in Japan. In his neatly tailored blue suit, Arthur Less is truly a comedy of errors.
Funny riffs abound. When re-counting his love of theater during a show, he is caught crying by the woman sitting beside him once the lights come up. Sensing her sympathy for him as if a tragic event has struck his life, he simply wants to tell her, “Nothing happened to me. I’m just a homosexual at a Broadway show.” A running gag throughout the novel is Arthur Less has convinced himself he is proficient in German only to not so much discover, but have the narrator translate his broken German as he speaks to his creative writing students. Later, at a late-night reading of Less’ work in Berlin, audience members start passing out from dehydration, though Less attributes this to the fact that he is literally “boring people to death.”
Clever wordplay is used throughout. Greer describes a New York bar Less visits as a drinking hole known "as a place for older men to meet younger ones; two antiquities are interviewing a slick-haired man on a couch.” The author also fashions together flashbacks and present dialogue with segues as if to make a continuous thought connecting Less’ past with modernity. A former lover of Less makes recurring appearances for his, shall we say, unorthodox style in bed: “Pinch that, okay, now touch there; no, higher; no, higher; no, HIGHER!” This dialogue reappears in several scenes in various contexts, but the reader is drawn back with Less to some awkward sex.
These writing devices complement a story hoping to background the exotic nature of his surroundings with the blase nature of Arthur Less himself. As Less spends his journey revising his novel Swift, a novel about a gay man in San Francisco “returning home after a series of blows and disappointments," the accompanying cast of characters with Less draw out for him the lack of sympathy and depth they feel for his protagonist. The subtext is painfully obvious as Less himself bemoans the longing he feels for his former lover, Freddy Pelu, from a jungle trek through Mexico, the beauty of the streets of Paris, the expansive, rugged nights under the stars in the Moroccan desert, the hip nightlife of Berlin, the food and vibrancy of India, and the serene tranquility of Japan. It's as if he is standing still, eyes drawn inward, while the beauty of the world races behind him.
To others and our narrator, this indifference is disguised bravery. He describes Less as the “bravest person” he knows. From a shaky plane ride to camel-back to primitive accommodations, Less remains even-tempered and from the outside could be perceived as brave. Though knowing Less, the reader finds that he is in fact terrified of everything, "Taking a trip around the world is no more terrifying than buying a stick of gum. The daily dose of courage.” In the desert, his fellow travelers seek to break the numb facade of our protagonist calling on him to "get fat with us. The best is yet to come … imagine all the dieting and exercise and effort of fitting into your suits from when you were thirty! And then what? You're still a dried-up old man." Less loves fitting into his blue suit too much.
This juxtaposition of an introspective and longing Less against the canvas of much of the world's beauty and culture highlights a larger cultural phenomenon Greer spells out for the reader. Describing the story, it might sound like a gay man's Eat Pray Love. But unlike other protagonists down on their luck who have sought comfort, healing, and meaning abroad to return renewed, Arthur Less seems more amiable to run out the clock than embrace the wildness of his surroundings. Looking up from our own personal escapes into the digital world, past relationships, or the hectic, evolving world of politics, this indifference to the beauty of life in front of us is not unfamiliar.
In the final act, Arthur Less returns home early. He looks back, as we all do or will do, and he sees where he came from. Taking a moment to appreciate his journey, he turns to his future enlightened, emboldened, and enriched with a satisfying surprise waiting for him and the reader.
Tyler Grant (@The_Tyler_Grant) is a Young Voices contributor, who completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Taiwan. He writes movie and book reviews for the Washington Examiner.