Review: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

20 Books of Summer 2020: Book 5

I’m always happy when a funny book wins the Pulitzer because it makes me feel less glum about my chances of ever reading all the winners. There’s a lot to love about Less, which is to say there’s a lot to love about its protagonist: Arthur Less. Arthur is 49 years old and riddled with insecurities around his age and recently-rejected novel. He’s haunted by two past relationships: one with Robert, a Pulitzer winner who was too old for him, and another with Freddy, a man Arthur felt too old for. When Freddy gets engaged to someone else, Arthur avoids the wedding by going on a world tour of literary events: to Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India, and Japan. Each chapter is set in a different country on his tour.

The narrative jumps around as Arthur is confronted by memories of Robert and Freddy wherever he goes. These flashbacks are interspersed with current events and periodic interruptions from the narrator, who has his own memories of Arthur. At times, Less seems more focussed on being funny than telling a complete, coherent story, but a poignant story about love and aging eventually surfaces. There are deeply painful musings between the puns and entertaining anecdotes:

Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old. That is, how he feels at times like these. . . . He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS that generation. Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty. How are they meant to do it? (33)

It was difficult to be pulled into the story at times because I couldn’t forget about the writer (Greer) while reading. And any time I’m thinking about the writer, I’m thinking about the nuts and bolts holding the story together. When I read Less, I want to picture Arthur living his life, not Greer at a computer, but it can be difficult here because Arthur’s rejected book sounds a little familiar. It’s about a middle-aged man walking around San Francisco and his sorrows. Everyone has the same reaction:

“A white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows?”
“Jesus, I guess so.”
“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”
“Even gay?”
“Even gay.” (170)

The above echoes the rare negative reviews of Less—that it’s about a white middle-aged American mediating on his sorrows and no one feels sorry for him. Except, Less has a mitigating factor: Arthur endears himself to the reader by being just hapless/ridiculous enough to lend the book a warm, bittersweet vibe. I wrote this line about the bittersweet vibe when taking notes BEFORE happening upon this paragraph. This is just after Arthur decides to rewrite his book because his protagonist isn’t a hero after all; he’s a fool:

He simply takes a gloomy event in the plot—say, a market owner dying of cancer—and inverts it, having Swift, out of pity, accept seven fragrant rounds of cheese, which he will then have to carry around San Francisco, growing more rank, throughout the rest of the chapter. . . . He finds himself awakening at dawn, when the sea is brightening but the sun still struggles in its bedclothes, and sits down to lash his protagonist a few more times with his authorial whip. And somehow, a bittersweet longing starts to appear in the novel that was never there before. It changes, grows kinder. (219)

That bit about the cheese is such an Arthur thing to do that it wouldn’t surprise me if Greer wrote that scene and cut it for time. I usually avoid books about writing because it’s hard to shake the feeling that the author is writing about themselves. Arthur’s swing towards humor sounds an awful lot like what Greer has said about his own process when writing Less. In an interview with Esquire:

The hard part was actually just deciding to make it a comedy, which it was not at all, at the start. It was a serious, poignant, wistful book about a gay man growing older, and I just couldn’t go on—the pity wasn’t in me for it. One day, I thought, What if I just made the whole thing funny? That’s always what the crisis is about—how do you get deeper into what you really want the book to be? That got me closer to the emotion of the book.

It’s not inherently bad that an author writing about a writer interjects his own thoughts so closely, but by the time you add up the lines in Less about the Pulitzer, there’s a strange undertone to the book as a whole. It’s very meta. I can’t think of another book where so many scenes/characters are shaded differently according to which award is touted on the dust jacket.

Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) Intentional or not, some of the meta stuff was distracting, but I loved the overall arc of the story which was unexpectedly genuine and heartfelt between all the flashbacks and one-liners.

Previously on

Books read, reviews coming soon

  • Florida by Lauren Groff
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  • There There by Tommy Orange
  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann

Reading in progress

  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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