Book review by Melanie Cutting
In Record columnist Ross Murray’s recent annual roundup of books he has read over the preceding year, Less was given special mention as one he would definitely recommend. I agree, although my book club read this slim novel a few weeks ago, and no one actually loved it. On the other hand, no one hated it, either. One or two clubbies thought that being a gay American writer and writing about being a gay American writer might be considered navel-gazing, and just a bit too easy…
This satirical comedy novel won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and made it to the New York Times best seller list, as well as winning the Northern California Book Award, among many other accolades.
Less is a satirical comedy novel by American author Andrew Sean Greer, first published in 2017. It follows gay writer Arthur Less as he travels the world on a literary tour, hoping to be away for his fiftieth birthday, since his much-younger, long-term lover Freddy has recently decided to marry someone closer to his own age, and very wealthy to boot. Recurring themes, such as the difficulties and rewards of same-sex relationships, romantic love, aging, and travel are all deftly handled, and the book includes quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Several passages reminded me of World According to Garp author John Irving’s second novel, The Water Method Man, in the author’s ability to sketch self-deprecating situations with both great humour, and even greater empathy.
The story: Arthur Less is a man of many frailties, and low self-worth. He is a minimally successful novelist who is surprised to discover that his work is far better received in places like Japan than at home in the U.S. To soothe his broken heart, he responds to several longstanding invitations to visit far-flung destinations and participate in the literary life abroad, and beyond. First up is a trip to New York City to interview a well-known author, and check in with his agent, “…who surely has word from his publisher. Less’s latest novel has been living with his publisher for over a month, as any modern couple lives together before a marriage, but surely his publisher will pop the question any day now. There will be champagne; there will be money.”
The second stop on his trip will be Mexico City, for a symposium on the work of his mentor and former lover, Robert. Since Robert is now too old and ill to travel, Less has been asked to speak at many conferences regarding his relationship with The Great Man, but never about Less’s own work: “Not as a novelist in his own right; rather as a kind of witness. A Civil War widow, as Less thinks of it. These festivals want one last glimpse of the famous Russian River School of writers and artists, a 1970s bohemian world long receded over the horizon, and they will accept a reflected one.”
Third on the itinerary is Turin, Italy to accept an award for one of his books recently translated into Italian, all expenses paid. “He wonders who funds such European excesses, considers they are perhaps laundering ill-gotten gains, and finds, printed at the bottom of the invitation, the name of an Italian soap conglomerate. Laundering indeed. But it gets him to Europe.”
His fourth stop will take him to Berlin to teach a five-week course “on a subject of Mr. Less’s choosing.” The letter is in German because Less’s publisher is under the impression that he is fluent in German, which Less also believes, but is proved stunningly wrong when he actually arrives in Germany and must acquit himself in the native tongue.
Fifth, a sojourn across Morocco, on an expedition from Marrakech into the Sahara Desert and then to Fez. Since his friend encouraged him to take part in the organized excursion, how could he say no? “The wine would be copious, the conversation scintillating, and the amenities deluxe. How could he say no? The answer, as always: money, money, money.” But too late, Less is now in love with his image of trekking across the desert.
The sixth leg of his round-the-world itinerary would put him in India at a retreat centre on a hill overlooking the Arabian Sea. In Less’s mind, “…he could polish the final draft of his novel, the one whose acceptance his agent will surely be celebrating in New York with that champagne.”
Finally, to Japan, in place of another writer whose wife has forbidden him further travel and who needs someone to go to Kyoto in his stead and write a piece about kaiseki cuisine for an in-flight magazine. In this way, Less will be able to avoid both his approaching mid-life birthday, and the marriage of his ex, and virtually none of it at his own expense.
Needless to say, most of his carefully laid plans go seriously —and often hilariously— astray, from the loss of his newly purchased signature blue suit, to stepping on his own sewing needle and requiring surgery in India.
According to Wikipedia, Andrew Sean Greer began writing Less as a “very serious novel” but found that “the only way to write about [being gay and aging] is to make it a funny story. And I found that by making fun of myself, I could actually get closer to real emotion – closer to what I wanted in my more serious books.”
Greer is also the author of The Path of Minor Planets, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, The Story of a Marriage, How It Was for Me, and The Confessions of Max Tivoli. He presently lives in San Francisco.
My recommendation: Read Less, you’ll like it more than you might expect. Trust me. Have I ever lied to you?
Less is available in paperback from the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.