If you know me at all, you know I’ve spent recent years railing against novels about white dudes who can’t get their shit together (examples here, here, and here). But the thing about hating a certain form of novel is that every once in a while someone does it spectacularly well and forces you to eat your words. That is the case with Andrew Sean Greer’s Less.
Arthur Less has been skimming through life in a series of comedic misadventures as though allergic to serious commitment or success. He’s a midlist writer whose greatest fame is through association: he was the boyfriend of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was part of an Algonquin round table-esque group of writers. He’s social and has had his share of lovers, but his introverted nature keeps him from really being part of a crowd (“No one could rival Arthur Less for his ability to exit a room while remaining inside it.”). So far, by dint of genetics and a relatively charming (if oblivious) disposition, Less has made these qualities work for him. Now on the eve of his 50th birthday, Less is having a bit of an internal crisis, however. In many ways, he’s been relying on luck to get by–but what if his luck runs out? What if he was getting it wrong all along and now he has to deal with the consequences? Nevermind the existential dread of feeling as though he is about to begin a slow descent to oblivion. These ages are compounded since Less is a gay man and feels like “the first homosexual ever to grow old.”
Existentialism is compounded by emotional distress as Less’ casual lover of many years is getting married. Desperate not to deal with the loss of something he hadn’t even realized he valued (and even more desperate not to attend the nuptials), Less accepts several invitations that will take him around the world–anywhere but the wedding. But the wedding will not leave his mind, and he certainly can’t run from the deadline of his fiftieth birthday (even though he would love to).
This madcap comic romp around the world forms the structure of the novel–each chapter a different country. As Less stumbles along, enduring humiliations both brought on by himself and by circumstance, it’s quite easy to fall for him. Yes, he’s clumsy like the clichéd lead of a bad romantic comedy, but he’s innocent, earnest, and trying to do better. Here’s how one character describes Less during their youth:
“You just walked into everything, like someone blindfolded… You were so skinny, all clavicle and hip bone! And innocent. The rest of us were so far from being innocent. I don’t think we even thought about pretending. You were different. I think everybody wanted to touch that innocence, maybe ruin it. Your way of going through the world, unaware of danger. Clumsy and naive. Of course I envied you. Because I could never be that; I’d stopped being that when I was a kid.”
Less’ story is about life and all the baggage that comes along with it. Life is, after all, frequently ridiculous. It’s also about love and success and aging. These may sound like familiar topics, but when viewed through the prism of a gay man (and with Andrew Sean Greer’s laugh-out-loud wit) they feel fresh and poignant. It’s rare for a book to make me laugh out loud (the last one that did was John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies), and also unfortunately rare for me to feel so swept up in a novel anymore. I thoroughly enjoyed Less because it’s funny and entertaining but also profound–I underlined and made notes as I went along, which has also grown exceedingly rare for me as a reader.
So get to know Arthur Less. If nothing else, you are guaranteed to enjoy the ride.