Book Review: Less, Andrew Sean Greer
Fiction: Less, Andrew Sean Greer
Arthur Less is about to turn 50, and his life is a mess. His longtime boyfriend Freddy is getting married to Tom and his publisher has turned down his latest novel. So, to avoid going to the wedding and to ignore his 50th birthday, Arthur plans a trip around the world. This is the premise for Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less.
Less is a funny, bizarre, quirky novel about a trip that does not quite go as planned. Arthur is a so-so novelist with books that have barely made a ripple in the world’s awareness. He is most noted for being the former lover of a famous poet, though his own work has gathered a bit of a following in translation (which, he admits, is likely more due to the gifts of the translator than due to his own writing). However, he does get the occasional odd invitation: a poetry symposium in Mexico, a prize ceremony in Italy, a teaching assignment in Berlin, a writing assignment in Japan. When you don’t want to turn 50 alone in your home in San Francisco, and you CERTAINLY don’t want to go to your ex-lover’s wedding in Tahiti, you can string several of these together and voila! You have a most-expenses paid trip around the world.
I found myself with an interesting set of mixed emotions reading Less. In many ways, the protagonist and I are very different. He is gay, promiscuous, and friends with famous literary figures. I am straight, married, and my friends have not yet attained the level of fame they deserve. He is traveling around the world, and my last trip out of the US was almost 40 years ago. Yet throughout the book I found myself nodding in recognition at our shared journey. I am 52, so very recently went through the same numeric passage facing Less during his trip. The physical changes wrought by middle age are all too familiar, as are the emotions as you realize that your first 50 years did not go according to the script you thought you were writing–and you likely don’t have another 50 years to rewrite the story. Less may be “about” a gay man’s trip around the world, but it is so much more. It is about every man’s (every person’s?) trip through life, as embodied by a strange, sometimes clueless, protagonist.
Throughout the book, Less muses on his life. His relationships with the two men he spent years with. His frenemies who seem to both understand him better than he understands himself, and who do not know him at all. His work as a writer. His family, including a father who tried desperately to raise a “straight” son by taking him camping and other outdoorsy pastimes. The nature of love. Aging. And travel itself. His musings are often funny, often poignant, sometimes filled with self-awareness and self-discovery, and sometimes completely clueless.
In his trip, Less is given some interesting advice. One person encourages him to get fat. She also advises him to give up on love. Another person informs him that he is a “bad gay.” Less finds lovers in Paris and Berlin, though it’s fair to say he does not find love. He buys a tailored suit in one country, loses a (different) tailored suit in another country, and finally loses all of his luggage, returning home with only the suit he purchased. All of these incidents and so many more are told with whimsy, compassion, and amusement by a narrator who clearly adores Less, quirks and peculiarities and all. When the identity of the narrator is revealed at the end of the novel, it is not entirely a surprise. It is, though, a delight.
By the end of the novel, Arthur Less has changed. He knows himself better. He has found his writing voice again. He is ready for the next stage in his life. The journey to finding himself may have taken him around the world. But the journey within was much longer. Less is a novel that definitely gives the reader more. I highly recommend it.