“Where is the real Less? Less the young man terrified of love? The dead-serious Less of twenty-five years ago? Well, he has not packed him at all. After all these years, Less doesn’t even know where he’s stored.” ― Andrew Sean Greer, Less
Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, is a funny and engaging picaresque novel. Told by an omniscient narrator and portrayed through a well-structured plot, the humor is sometimes over-the-top, at least for this reader, and the story fascinates with the world of a not quite mainstream writer.
The novel opens when Arthur Less finds Freddy, his much younger, part-time lover of the past nine years—the one Less keeps warning not to become too attached to him—telling Less he’s met somebody else. When the wedding invitation arrives Less, a mediocre but earnest author, opens his desk drawer and fishes his hand through a sea of likewise mediocre professional invitations. If he accepts them all he would have the ingredients for a trip around the world and be out of town for the wedding and his dreaded fiftieth birthday, too. Less thinks, “What could possibly go wrong?”
So begins Greer’s sometimes hilarious ode to travel. From Less’s “Thumbelina bottle of red wine” to the “prison blanket, prison pillow” to which he clings, to his years-long battle to be refunded his VAT, Less is every person who wants to see the world but not deal with the struggle to get there. He’s also every person who’s armored himself against heartache by avoiding serious commitments.
Arthur Less has, for the past decade and a half, remained a bachelor. This came after a long period of living with an older poet, Robert Brownburn, that consumed his life till he suddenly found himself approaching middle age. Now he faced a second stage of life and swore he would not give it to anyone; he would enjoy it. He would enjoy it alone. But: how to live alone and yet not be alone? His strategy was to “renounce love completely.” He had lovers but did not grow close. Hence his treatment of Freddy. And his impulse to flee.
Following this wonderfully funny-sad introduction, the picaresque stage takes over and we visit several countries with Arthur. The structure of the novel mirrors his round-the-world trip. Each chapter reveals a new country, new obstacles, and a new cast of characters. Less drags along his emotional baggage from place to place, and any random event can trigger a memory from his past with Robert or Freddy or from his childhood; he is never alone. In theory, all this backstory could slow down the plot, but he continually enters new situations. Each of them are fraught with worries and humorous moments like his stop in Germany where he teaches a course he delightfully calls "Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein". This is based on "his own notion that writers read other works in order to take their best parts." With this as his set-up the humor is upped by his own less-than-expert knowledge of German which leads his students (behind his back) to label him "Peter Pan" due to his puerile exposition of the language. In this episode as all others, while he may sometimes be uncomfortable, he always survives to continue to another country.
While he doesn't intend as much the journey becomes an inadvertent quest for the meaning of love in his life. At a party in Paris, Less feels like the only single fifty-year-old with no prospects in sight. While sitting at a bar in Morocco on the eve of his birthday, Less’s female friend, also recently dumped, ponders whether love is “walking the fucking dog so the other one can sleep in” or if “it’s this earth-shattering thing. . . . Something I’ve never felt. Have you?” Less can’t answer. Much later while talking to Robert on the phone, he remembers his former partner’s deep longing for him and wonders if he’ll ever be loved that way again. Less finally asks the question he’s been trying to evade: “Am I too old to meet someone?” It is in moments like this, surprising moments of tenderness, when Less’s armor crumbles that he’s forced to face his ache inside.
Greer satirizes much of the writing life, from the agent who tells Less his novel is “too wistful. Too poignant,” to a ceremony for an obscure award, to a writing conference, to discuss not Less’s own books but the work of his long-ago lover, the genius poet Robert Brownburn. Greer reaches beyond satire to give glimpses into the character’s writing process -- moments where he describes the interior act of writing and the working of a creative mind. The humor in the novel's picaresque sections seems subdued compared to the opening sections, and sometimes seems to be merely tired farcical episodes, but the novel as a whole is more than entertaining, With Arthur's meditations on love and its loss it raises serious issues for the reader. The result justifies, in my opinion, the prize-winning status of this contemporary novel.