Turns Out Less Really Is More: My Review of Less Is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer

When Andrew Sean Greer published Less, a comedic look at a gay writer traveling the world to avoid his problems, it was a surprise hit–going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (I have a full deep dive on that here).

That could have been the end of it, but a comedy winning a major award always opens up the door for criticism from people who think only serious literature should win prizes. In fact, that was the focus of my deep dive on Less because I think it’s worth expanding the definition of what books qualify as great. But things get complicated with Less for me because, well, I have some problems with the book itself.

The reason this is particularly interesting is that Andrew Sean Greer could have left all that alone and explored new territory with his next book, but instead he is releasing a sequel named Less Is Lost on September 20, 2022. A sequel that seems pretty specifically designed to confront the less nice things people say about Less. Unfortunately, not in a particularly clever or interesting way–and by the end of the book, it’s gone from being naively unnecessary and reactionary to being actively terrible.

Less is repeatedly described as a novel about a middle-aged gay writer running away from his problems. My initial concern with Less Is Lost was that the plot description indicated that Arthur Less (the protagonist) is once again on the road after new problems arise–which seemed to imply that he would be running from his problems all over again. That is actually not the case at all. In Greer’s first about-face, this time Less is going on the run to solve his problems.

You see, Less Is Lost opens with the death of Arthur’s first lover (famed poet Robert Brownburn).

(Actually, Less Is Lost opens with Arthur Less going for a blood draw from a phlebotomist described in inexplicable detail as “bald, Taiwanese, heavily tattooed, suffering a fresh heartache that has no bearing on our story” as part of a routine check-up. Arthur is wearing ludicrous clothing and for some reason has an existential crisis about how to label his relationship with Freddy on his emergency contact forms, letting you know exactly how insufferable this book is about to be. And by the way, that tattooed phlebotomist will inexplicably factor into the novel’s conclusion)

It is frequently referenced that Arthur gave his youth to Robert Brownburn in both books because they met when Arthur was 20 and separated when Arthur was 35. Why is this important? Who knows. But it was Brownburn who gave Arthur an entrance into the world of writing, setting Arthur off on his career where we met him as a middling writer who is now middle-aged (both the middling and middle-aged parts are profoundly important to Andrew Sean Greer because he’s never met a bit of wordplay he didn’t love to hammer to smithereens). What matters is that Brownburn has been foundational in Arthur’s life and has filled many roles: lover, mentor, friend, the one who got away, and Less Is Lost awkwardly adds another role: father figure.

Yes, father figure. Because in our next bit of revisionist “actually”-ing from Greer, it turns out this novel wants you to believe that Arthur isn’t the pampered, privileged guy leading a life so charmed that he can just run from his problems and stumble into a happy ending by dumb luck. Actually, he had a sad childhood. Actually, he’s estranged from his father. Actually, Robert Brownburn sheltered him so he wouldn’t have to grow up.

Because it turns out that Arthur Less has been living in the house he used to share with Robert Brownburn. When they broke up, Robert left and Arthur… just stayed. And never paid rent. And never talked to Robert about this arrangement, which means they never came to an agreement about Arthur’s claim to this house. To minimize the ickiness of Arthur just living in a San Francisco home rent-free for a decade, Andrew Sean Greer nicknames the house “the shack” and repeatedly refers to its small size. But that doesn’t actually make this more palatable because he’s living rent-free in one of the most expensive cities in the country. And I guess just assumed this would go on forever?

Needless to say, it will not go on forever, because after Robert’s funeral his estate lets Arthur know that he owes them ten years of back rent on the house cutely referred to as the shack. And if he can’t pay in a month, Arthur and his current lover, Freddy, will be forced out (conveniently, there’s no mention of what is supposed to happen going forward if Arthur does manage to make the payment).

Freddy is, understandably, frustrated by this: yet another example of Arthur bumbling through life and refusing to take on actual, adult responsibility. So the relationship status of Arthur and Freddy goes from figuratively up in the air when Arthur doesn’t know how to define their relationship on a form to literally up in the air as Freddy questions his life choices and Arthur tries to prove that he can be serious after all. This is something I find exhausting about romantic stories that get dragged out in sequels: it feels like the story starts getting stuck in cycles where the characters keep repeating the same beats to less impact. But in Less Freddy was an abstraction until the end of the book revealed that he had been our narrator the whole time. Here, out of necessity he has become a full-fledged character who we know very well is framing the story for us.

That doesn’t sound like a big deal but it’s a fundamental change for the book. For one thing, Less works in part because even though Arthur Less is an insufferable idiot, the palpable adoration our narrator feels for him makes it a lot easier to like him anyway. That doesn’t work if the narrator agrees that Arthur is a bumbling fool. It also means that since we know who the narrator is and his relationship to Arthur, Andrew Sean Greer feels free to reference their connection and have Freddy speak directly to Arthur in ways that are extremely cringe-inducing. In one moment, Arthur is looking out at a vista described as lonely, only for Freddy to muse something like “and I can’t help but wonder: are you lonely, Less?”

Gross.

Another fundamental difference is that Less was episodic in structure. The problems Arthur faced (Freddy’s engagement to another man and Arthur’s fears about turning 50) were already underway when the book began, so we picked up as Arthur hit the road. Each chapter was a new destination in Arthur’s world tour, promising a fresh start. Less Is Lost chucks this out. Instead, we’re with Arthur when he finds out about the things that will send him on the road and the narrative is much more dependent on a throughline as he moves from place to place. It’s another change that is not for the better.

The second thing about Less Is Lost that feels reactionary to criticism is that Less won the Pulitzer Prize, a literary award whose mandate is to reward an American author, preferably for a work that deals with American life. Except Less is only about America and American life in that it portrays an American abroad–an idea that its fans have held up as wicked satire, although I don’t think that holds much water. But Less Is Lost is overly focused on America as a concept, even though it doesn’t ultimately have much to say about this country. You can feel the perspiration on every page as Andrew Sean Greer scrambles to make this a big, important book about the state of this country without actually getting into politics. Needless to say, nothing ever lands. And there’s no way it could land because Greer doesn’t actually want to grapple with the state of this country. Racism and homophobia are glanced at but Greer assiduously avoids discussing the chasm between red states and blue states or the idea that a lot of conservatives would vote to take away Arthur Less’ rights. He never mentions Trump or the pandemic, so this book is neither timely nor urgent. You could argue that he’s going for timelessness, but it doesn’t have that either.

The most you get is a tiresome comedic approach to homophobia when Arthur Less decides to wear Walmart Americana drag instead of his suit in order to look less like a gay person. Actually, because Andrew Sean Greer thinks he’s cute, Arthur wants to look less like a person from the Netherlands. There’s a recurring joke where people ask Arthur if he’s from the Netherlands when they just can’t figure out if he’s gay. There are a lot of recurring jokes in this book (including one about Celine Dion covering songs from metal bands).

That’s a real fear in this country: there are places that people of color and queer people feel like they aren’t allowed to exist. It’s a huge problem. And it’s sad. Andrew Sean Greer turns it into a joke without a punchline because he doesn’t want to actually say anything about it.

The most Greer will do is make a joke comparing the relationship between the states to a marriage that has gone sour thanks to divided ambitions, compromises, and too many years of bitterness and resentment. Greer treats that like a mic drop–and sure, it’s clever–but it’s another joke without much of a punchline. He doesn’t drop a mic so much as he just hurls it at his readers before running away.

Don’t even get me started on how often this book refers to Arthur Less as a Walloon. It’s like Andrew Sean Greer learned a new word that he thought was funny-sounding and has a very specific meaning so like everything else in this book, he hammered it until it was dead.

Anyway, Arthur and Freddy are meant to go on vacation to Maine, where Freddy has romantic things he would like to do that Arthur has been flagrantly noncommital about, but now Arthur is determined to be an adult for the first time in his life and prove to Freddy that he can fix this house situation. So he accepts a bunch of invitations that will bring in money so he can save their house before he, hopefully, meets up with Freddy in Maine.

As an aside, it appears Greer is intending to use this to show that it isn’t really Arthur’s fault that he hasn’t had to bear the burden of, you know, life before: he was sheltered! And now that Brownburn is gone, there is no one to shelter Arthur Less from the world, so he will have to stand up for himself. Except this is completely oblivious to the fact that most people have to learn to “adult” in their twenties or thirties. Not having to do it until you are past fifty is still not a great look.

Anyway, needless to say: chaos ensues. And it’s pretty awful.

The plot feels desperate in a lot of ways and the comedic tone is a big part of that. Less Is Lost is trying so very hard to amuse you and you feel the strain on every page. One of the things that fans of Less most frequently throw back at me is the idea that it’s really well written. And it is. I would challenge anyone to say the same thing about Less Is Lost. The ham-handed plotting is so contorted. The way it moves around feels like nothing more than elaborate set-ups for Arthur Less to humiliate himself. Imagine if the Final Destination movies (which famously use wildly overthought domino effects to kill off characters) was a comedy designed to humiliate instead of kill. It’s like Greer just thought about funny scenarios and then manipulated the plot to make them happen: get Arthur Less on a donkey, have him accidentally take a hallucinogenic, make him wear a poncho, get him to drive a broken-down RV, get his suit muddy and have him inexplicably not change or attempt to clean it for three states, make him wear Walmart clothing, have people keep telling him about a Super Beaver Moon, get him in a car driven by a student driver, have multiple cases of mistaken identity, and more.

It’s exhausting.

In one part, the book literally says “There is a lesbian noise and Rebecca turns to look.” When she turns, there’s just a group of people gathering to look at the aforementioned Super Beaver Moon. What is a lesbian noise, exactly, and how did this group of people make one? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is it sounds funny and clever… if you don’t stop to think about it. That is Less Is Lost in a nutshell.

Something that I find particularly interesting is that Less Is Lost is quite a bit revisionist in its approach to several things. There are things that feel disjointed from what we were told in the first book. The most significant is that in Less, Arthur has a casual approach to sex. In my deep dive, I referred to this as refreshing, because Less is an unapologetically queer book that features a refreshingly candid portrayal of a white gay man of Less’ age and his approach to relationships. It’s not a universal experience but it is the experience of a segment of the queen population, and it rarely makes it into books that escape the ghetto of the LGBTQ+ Fiction section.

And yet, Less Is Lost portrays Arthur Less as something of a prude. It doesn’t make sense. Less established that Robert and Arthur both cheated on each other. Arthur was no stranger to casual hookups. Both Arthur and Freddy had other relationships and hookups in the first nine years of their relationship. Hell, Arthur even had two casual lovers in Less. It doesn’t make sense to suddenly act like he’s awkward around sex.

This particular bit of revisionist history seems to be part of Andrew Sean Greer’s ongoing rebuttal to critiques of Less. Did you think Less was unemotional, oblivious, overly privileged? Well, the jokes on you because Andrew Sean Greer is desperate for you to know that Arthur Less has actually had a sad life. Except… he hasn’t, really. There’s an utter cluelessness about what constitutes hardship in this book. Arthur didn’t grow up wealthy and his father abandoned him. That’s Arthur’s baggage. And we’re meant to think it’s so very sad.

From the moment there’s a casual reference to Arthur’s father and the fact that they are estranged, you know this is going to be a big factor of the book. The father is absolutely going to turn up somehow. Thankfully, Greer doesn’t tease you too badly with this: early on, Arthur’s sister tells him that his father is going to meet him somewhere on his tour and she thinks he may be dying.

One of the most infuriating things Greer does in this book is that he doesn’t trust his readers to make connections. I think it’s an extension of his inability to do anything subtly in this book. The most egregious example of this is how it’s quickly apparent that Arthur and his father are more alike than Arthur would like to admit. Arthur is repeating the same mistakes his father made. But Greer keeps hammering this home with blunt force, finally going so far as to have the father’s girlfriend give Arthur one of the father’s old suits–one she describes as his former signature suit that he has now outgrown. When Arthur opens the package, he finds that his father’s signature suit is a bright blue. Just like Arthur’s signature suit in Less. Did you get it? No really, did you?

We got it.

Another critique of Less is that it’s about a privileged middle-aged white man. In my deep dive, I noted that Greer seemed to have accidentally stepped into a problematic area by repeatedly having Arthur feel sad that no one wants to read his book about a middle-aged white man’s sorrows. At a time when the conversation around white men worrying about being replaced was already toxic. Less Is Lost is determined to do the same for race that it attempts to do with America: it hyper-fixates on race to the point that bizarrely, our narrator, Freddy, often tells you how many people of color there are in any given room with Arthur. But again, this book has nothing substantive to say about race in this country. It just wants you to know that it’s aware of race.

And in one of the book’s worst moments, there’s another recurring joke about how common Arthur Less is as a name. In fact, there’s even another Arthur Less who is an author, but this one is black! And it turns out that our Arthur Less has been accidentally stealing opportunities from the black Arthur Less for years because he’s oblivious and entitled (Greer only makes the argument that it is accidental–I am adding the oblivious and entitled parts. And when they meet, they just laugh about it. It’s not a big deal to black Arthur Less that a white man stole his opportunities from him.

Excuse me? That is SO GROSS.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to understand why this book exists at all. It was certainly not needed and despite its strenuous efforts, it doesn’t fix any of the things that were wrong with Less. In my opinion, it only makes them worse. It’s badly plotted, ill-conceived, aggressive in the wrong areas, soft in the wrong areas, almost completely oblivious, convinced of its own cleverness in ways that are entirely undeserved, and worst of all: wholly unnecessary. It doesn’t add anything for fans or prove detractors wrong. It just is.

Your mileage may vary. If you were a fan of Less, or more of a fan than I am, you will most likely enjoy this book way more than I did. But I can’t see anyone liking this as much as Less or thinking it’s anything other than a ham-handed mess (to varying degrees). I certainly can’t see anyone believing that this book justifies its own existence.

Less is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer

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