Less is Funny and Poignant

Less (2017)
By Andrew Sean Greer
Little, Brown, and Company, 263 pages.

Arthur Less is about to turn 50. He has seen so many friends die of AIDS that he thinks maybe he's "the first homosexual ever to grow old."

Less was once the lover of Robert Brownburn, a poet who won every literary award under the sun, but Arthur hasn't made literary waves since his first novel induced a few soggy feet, and his publisher rejected the first draft of his new book. For years he's been puttering about in writers' limbo: writing reviews, conducting interviews, and publishing in obscure journals. When his name comes up in literature circles, the descriptor "minor figure" is usually attached. To make matters worse, the circle has just been completed. In his halcyon youth, Less was Robert's younger partner, but Arthur has just found out that his own junior part-time lover, Freddy, is getting married to an even younger man. Less is invited to the wedding, but the very thought induces existential dread. To top it off, Robert is dying.

So how does the first gay man to grow old manage a midlife crisis? Arthur is looking for a way to back out of Freddy's wedding when he learns that he's up for a writing prize he's never heard of—in Italy. That sparks a bigger idea. Arthur looks over all of the conference invitations and offers he's had in the past few years and decides to accept all of them! What better way to avoid Freddy's wedding than to plead that you're out of town and out of the country? Thus begins a sojourn that will take Arthur Less to New York, Mexico, Paris, Italy, Berlin, Morocco, India, and Japan.

Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is at turns, funny, poignant, sad, and reflective. Everywhere Arthur goes he's asked to comment upon the excitement of having lived with a literary giant like Robert. The truth is that Robert was often a huge pain in the ass, but Less can't shake the question posed by a Mexico City panelist: "What is it like to go on, knowing you are not a genius?"  As it happens, this is exactly the question that torments Arthur. Later in the novel he describes himself as "like a person with no skin."

Greer's novel is essentially that of a gay man who runs away from home and goes to conferences instead of joining the circus. In all such set ups, the central question is whether one is running from or to something. That's also a fine device for mixing humor and poignancy. For instance, Less arrives in Italy to find himself competing for a prize with several other authors he thinks are much more serious and accomplished than he. One, in fact, tells Less that his first novel was an uneven but promising effort, but that he's among those who denounce Arthur as "an assimilationist," which seems to mean he has lived a relatively conventional life. Arthur is told, "It's not that you're a bad writer, it's that you're a bad gay." Against all odds, Less wins the prize—only to find out it was conferred by a jury of high school students!

To the degree Arthur's world tour has a high point, it occurs in the short course he teaches to university students in Berlin. It's a riot to read. Arthur fancies himself fluent in German, but in truth he's good enough to be a male version of Mrs. Malaprop.* His students dub him Peter Pan. That's not because Less is fey, but because his students are utterly charmed by his manic energy, his mangling of German, and his creative teaching methods. He leads them through a course titled "Read Like a Vampire," whose major aim is to make students fall in love with words. (One exercise involves taking scissors to passages from James Joyce and reassembling them into new ones.)

The thing about midlife crises, though, is that are usually about acceptance, not unearthing a hidden self or new vocation. Greer hews to that path and it's among the things he does very well. He is to be congratulated for writing something more than a gay novel; it's a clever story with a central character who simply happens to be gay. Greer is under no illusion that his book will reverse the Othering of homosexuals. Some, in fact, might find Greer to be a "bad gay." His characters are not soapbox activists, bathhouse cruisers, clothes horses—the fate of Arthur's one suit is another amusing side story—or any other fill-in-the-blank stereotype of gay men. They are mostly like Arthur Less: individuals wrestling with the same anxiety, self-esteem, and reputational issues as the rest of humanity.  

This is a skillfully written book. Those who read this blog know that I am often critical of projects that seek but fail to blend comedy and seriousness. Greer succeeds by going small rather than resorting to forced weightiness or contrived drama. To reiterate an earlier point, Arthur Less isn't defined by being gay; he simply is gay. Why load down something as serious as midlife crisis with faux mitigating circumstances when it is universal and sufficiently burdensome no matter who is shouldering it?

I really liked this book. Is it Pulitzer Prize worthy? I think I might have gravitated to either George Saunders or Jesmyn Ward, but that may be the wrong way to look at it. It's ironic that Greer won the Pulitzer, as Less lampoons literature prizes. In fact, one character advises Arthur to "never win" such a prize because he will end up spending his time speaking about that book rather than writing the next one. Let's hope Greer takes his own advice. We can debate whether Less deserved a Pulitzer, but there's no debating the fact that Andrew Sean Greer is worth reading.

Rob Weir

* The term malaprop derives from Mrs. Malaprop, a vocabulary-challenged character in Richard Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals.

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