I wasn’t initially going to pick up Less. The first sentence of the blurb was, truth be told, an immediate turn-off, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its prizewinning status:
“You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty.”
I’ve read, or seen, enough of those stories. I didn’t think I needed another one.
Fate intervened. A colleague saw my copy of Red, White, and Royal Blue on my desk, and mentioned it was recommended to him because he enjoyed Less. I’d loved RW&RB, so I figured I’d give Less a shot.
Less does actually have a delightful premise. Arthur Less is a failed novelist about to turn fifty. His boyfriend leaves him, and a few months later, sends Less an invitation to his wedding. Too proud to decline for no reason, Less accepts a number of literary invitations that take him on at trip around the world.
Long story short: I didn’t love it, but it made me think a lot about story structure and where it went wrong. It also left me confused on what’s required to win a Pulitzer, but that’s neither here nor there.
There are some delightful turns of phrase in the book, some of which made me laugh out loud. At the very beginning of the novel, we learn:
“Fourth [on Less’ itinerary]: the Wintersitzung at the Liberated University of Berlin–a five-week course “on a subject of Mr. Less’s choosing.” The letter is in German; the university is under the impression Arthur Less is fluent in German, and Arthur Less’s publisher, who recommended him, is also under this impression. So is Arthur Less. With God’s happiness, he writes back, I accept the pedestal of power, and sends it off with a flush of pleasure.”Andrew Sean Greer, Less. pp.19-20
This paragraph was enough to win me over — it got me to chuckle during intermission at Carnegie Hall. It promises sweetness, and humour, and an initial lack of self-awareness that can lead to life-changing transformation.
In the end, however, it felt like none of those promises were kept. Not really.
There is humour to the story, and the section in Germany was by far my favourite. But there’s so much that happens in these 260 pages that I’m not sure we ever truly feel any of it. A passing chuckle, a brief tug at the heartstrings, and the reader moves on to the next adventure.
In the end, I’m also not certain what story Greer was trying to tell with this book, or why he made certain choices. It’s fairly clear, early on, that the narrator is Less’s ex-boyfriend. But what do we learn from this? That you should open yourself to love? That in the end, love can conquer all?
Is this book about writing? We see Less struggle with fixing a manuscript that his publisher has rejected, but only in India. Does the story not haunt his dreams in Mexico, or Paris, or Morocco? Does he not take it out, attempt to fix it, before his writing retreat? Perhaps if he cares so little for the story, that might be the case. I’m not even certain if he finished the book in the end.
Is this a book about the fickle nature of fate? In Turin, Less unexpectedly wins a prize: we get only a brief moment of his shock, and then nothing. Does he not stare wonderingly at the trophy, certain it was a mistake? Does it inspire him to write more? To never want to write again?
Is this a book about the blindness of privilege? At the end of the novel, Less speaks with the father of his ex-boyfriend, who tells him: “You have the best life of anyone I know.” And yet — I see no realization of this in Arthur Less. He continues to bumble on in much the same way.
What is this book? Is it just a collection of vignettes about a life, with no greater meaning? Are its flaws a limitation of the choice of narrator, who is not with our protagonist during the events of the book?
In the end, it felt like a collection of threads that loosely tied together into something resembling a story – but not a satisfactory one. I think all I can say is I wanted more.