Less, by Andrew Sean Greer
Less, the sixth book and fifth novel by Andrew Sean Greer, is a jewel-box of a novel—compact, sparkling, and filled with treasures. Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Greer’s novel is an effortless read, though that’s not to say that the story—and its eponymous protagonist, Arthur Less—are not complex. Greer fills these pages with Less, a middle-aged (newly fifty) mid-list writer, who is compelled to escape his life in San Francisco when he learns his erstwhile lover of nine years, Freddy, is about to be married. Rather than RSVP to the wedding invitation, Less accepts instead a series of invitations in countries around the globe, “a teaching post, a conference, a writing retreat, a travel article,” and with these events in place, we’ll follow Arthur Less from New York, to Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, Morocco, Switzerland, India, and back to San Francisco again.
We meet Arthur at the onset of his first assignment, as he is about to conduct an interview in Manhattan with a world-famous Game-of-Thrones-variety author, H. H. H. Mandern. Less awaits his escort to the interview in a hotel lobby and we meet him as he contemplates a clock he does not know has stopped:
“His slim shadow is, in fact, still that of his younger self, but at nearly fifty he is like one of those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolor beautifully until they match the trees.”
This is the sort of prose that makes the pages of this slim novel speed by, tripping along its elegant structure. Arthur Less is beset by disappointment—in love and in work—and by a sense of haplessness that in both these arenas brings about complications of the self-deprecating sort. Each stop along the way finds Arthur grappling with both longing for love and longing for a resolution to his long-in-revision novel and its inscrutable character, Swift. These, along with the despondency over Freddy’s marriage, are the perfect problems to set his character against. As Arthur makes his way around the world—hoping to forget but of course unable to stop thinking about his regret at breaking up with the much younger Freddy—Less encounters love affairs, rival authors, places he first saw with Freddy, people who knew them as a couple: thoughts of Freddy, like a persistent spot on his trademark blue suit, is something Arthur can’t erase.
Andrew Sean Greer is the author of six books, including The Confessions of Max Tivoli (2004), which was described by John Updike as “enchanting, in the perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment brought to grandeur by Proust and Nabokov.”
Part of the beauty of Less is how Greer resolves the questions of the novel—will Arthur survive the loss of Freddy? Will he finish his novel?—and these two threads resolve in a lovely, satisfying way—but it’s a third aspect of this novel that most intrigued me: its narrator. Greer manages to pull the story along in a voice that we too fall in love with, and like Less, we follow the voice like an infatuated admirer, and it’s only at the end we learn who is it is we’ve fallen for, and that made me love this novel all the more.