In an interview with NPR, Andrew Sean Greer said when he realized he’d finished writing his most recent novel, “Less,” he wept. “It’s hard to let people go. Even imaginary people,” he explained.
I understand exactly how he felt because I’d fallen in love with his protagonist, and I didn’t want his story to end. When “Less” won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, many people were surprised, since it’s essentially a comedy, and the staid panels that dole out prestigious literary awards tend to see comedy as the poor stepchild of fiction. However, although “Less” will make you laugh out loud, it is driven by our hero’s struggles to confront his fears, insecurities and growing older. This marvelous book also has him ponder the nature of love and the possibility of happiness as he strives to figure out who he is and what he wants from life.
The Less of “Less” is Arthur Less, who is about to turn 50 and is dreading this milestone. Less is a B-list novelist, “too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who had heard of his books.” To make matters worse, he receives a wedding invitation from Freddy, his much younger, on-again, off-again lover of nine years, who has left him for a younger man. Less can’t bear the thought of the “chuckles and raised eyebrows” he’ll face if he accepts, but knows he’ll be equally ridiculed if he declines. What he needs is a plausible excuse, so he unearths a pile of offers to attend conferences, write articles, teach, and so on, that he’s ignored and decides to accept all of them.
What follows is a series of picaresque adventures that provide the book’s structure and satirically illuminate “the crazy quilt of a writer’s life: warm enough, though it never quite covers the toes.” We follow Less from San Francisco to New York, where he learns his publisher has rejected his latest manuscript, then on to Mexico for a writer’s conference fraught with disaster. Next he flies to Italy, where he’s been nominated for an award that he discovers will be judged by a panel of teenagers. From there, he goes to Berlin, where he serves a term teaching at a university (one of the most hilarious off all his adventures). After a brief sojourn in Paris, he flies to Morocco to attend a birthday party for a woman he doesn’t know (another of my favorite stops), complete with camels, sandstorms, and an epiphany or two.
Less also spends time at what he thinks will be a writer’s colony in India, where he hopes to salvage his new book. This turns out to be a Christian retreat center, complete with a pastor who is “…a tanned and miniature Groucho Marx in a cassock that buttons at one shoulder like a fast food uniform….” There he also encounters his old nemesis, Carlos, a fellow writer, and makes a surprising discovery about what has driven Carlos’s animosity all these years. Finally, wounded and bedraggled, he heads for Japan to research an article for an in-flight magazine. On learning that his old lover and mentor, Robert Brownburn, a genius and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, has suffered a stroke, he rushes home to see his wise old friend, and we are treated to Less’s surprising and satisfying homecoming.
At the book’s start, quite proud of his clever way of avoiding Freddy’s wedding, Less chortles, “What could go wrong?” Now we all know, when a character asks this question, the answer is “Just about everything,” and therein lies the fun. Murphy’s Law prevails as Less loses his baggage, always finds that whatever he plans to see is closed, or he’s too early for (the Cherry Blossom festival in Japan, for example), mangles a language he thinks he speaks well (in Germany, he needs to remove unregistered students from his class, but actually says to his bewildered students “And now, I am sorry, I must kill most of you.”), and discovers that, as a rule, he’s been invited to events only because the original participant couldn’t make it.
In addition to enjoying this voyage of the damned, readers will discover the writing is just as juicy and delicious as Less’s adventures. Greer’s use of metaphor and sly allusions are nothing short of brilliant. For example, as Less’s plane to Mexico encounters dangerous turbulence, it “convulses in the moonlight, like a man turning into a werewolf.” In Paris, Greer sneaks in a reference to the classic children’s book, “Madeline,” as we find our hero gasping for breath “…below an old house all covered in vines. A group of schoolgirls pass in two straight lines.” Equally delicious is the mystery of the narrator’s identity. Much of the time, the story is told in third-person, yet “Less” begins with this statement: “From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.” Who is this “I”? One thing is certain: he or she is a character in the novel who knows Less well, and if you’re a careful reader, you’ll pick up clues along the way.
And along the way, I think you’ll fall in love with Arthur Less, as I did. He’s a sweet, gentle man – fearful, yet adventurous – and always endearingly self-deprecating. He sees himself “…as superfluous as the extra a in Quaalude,” and he’s the underdog you can’t help but root for and care about. From him, we learn that you can’t escape your past, or your true feelings, but you can go home again.