Book Review – Less by Andrew Sean Greer

One of the challenges in reviewing the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is that it has done exactly that –  won one of two most prestigious prizes in English fiction (the other being the Booker Prize), and so I can assume that some very wise and well-read judges had made this decision for sound reasons. The other challenge is to read through the hyperbolic shouts that adorn the cover, most from writers who command a large acreage of my literary mindscape, and to try and maintain objectivity in the face of them. And then there are the hundreds of reviews, which I would prefer not to read before I do my own. Which strikes me a tad ascetic, now that I think about it.

So. Less. The title takes its etymology from the last name of Arthur Less, and double entendres abound, the surname nestling in warmly with Mr. Less’s diminished life. And also joining a list of literary novels whose books are named after (and robustly inhabited by) their protagonists – Bellow’s Herzog, Lewis’s Babbitt, Williams’s Stoner. Arthur Less is introduced as a minor novelist, about to turn 50, and feeling a battered by a a betrayal of love in particular, and life in general. And so he embarks on a trip around the world – Mexico, Germany, France, Morocco, India, Japan. The reader tags along, and finds out about his life and loves lost along the way.

Arthur Less – lovelorn (twice over). Insecure,  Lonely, in a self-imposed sort of way. Existentially crushed. Lost.  Such a character should sink under the weight of his own disappointments and frailties, but a strange thing happened in this book. First I found him bland. Then I felt sorry for him. Then I started to like him and root for hm. And then I really, really cared what happened to him. It was a sort of magic spun by Greer; an excellent literary trick.

There was other literary magic too. The narrator, sometimes ubiquitous, sometimes attached and occasionally (and weirdly) dropping into first person and directly addressing the reader in the second person (‘You would think that Less…’). It takes no small accomplishment to pull that off, and Greer does. We find out why in the last chapter’s blinding reveal, more on that later. The unusual voice of the narrator turns our to be the key which finally opens the door of the novel.

There are few women in this book. Less is gay. His fiends are gay. His life is spent mainly among men. There are lovers, affairs, one-nighters. We discover that Less’s great love was a genius Pulitzer prize-winning poet, an older man who leaves his wife for Less, thirty years before the start of this story. And then a second great love, a younger man named Freddie, who suddenly leaves Less to marry another younger man, This world of gays and homosexual love is a little outside of my reading (and my life’s experience). It was edifying to peer inside that world.

So what is the book about? Less’s failed affairs, and the imminent wedding of his recent lover Freddie of ten years has forced Less to run away,. To literary festivals and award ceremonies and desert tents and teaching engagements and magazine assignments all over the world. We perch inside his head, as his thoughts range chaotically from his youth to his present, the narrative darting between his failures and fealties, his old affections and new afflictions. It seems to be plotless trek, but one on which we are pleased to hitch a ride, accompanied by this tall, blond, balding and bewildered lesser man of letters, oxymoronically referred to by the narrator as ‘little Less’.

And then there is the last chapter. I do not want to spoil, but it was wonderful, surprising, uplifting and moving – a virtuoso emergence of a hidden plot, shyly replacing Less’s world with the world of narrator. An astonishing sleight of hand that takes this novel into a place that few others dare to go, and which certainly sealed the accolades that have come its way.

There were many fine and surprising things about this thin novel. The slow revealing of the Less himself. The writing – new, fresh, uncluttered, wry, sometimes very funny. The shorts spurts of Fellini-esque experiences in the different continents, beautifully nuanced and understated, like Less himself. Nuggets of wisdom and self-knowledge suddenly appearing briefly on the page as Less travels onwards.

Was it is the best novel of the year? Probably not, at at least to my mind (The Nix was far more worthy, although that may have been last year).

Was it a great and enduring work of fiction? Perhaps.

Was it a fine and satisfying and pleasurable work of literature that I would recommend?

Yes, it was. It was. Definitely.