New York, NY: Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, 2017. 272 pages. $26.00.
How can you avoid the pain of heartbreak? For Arthur Less, the protagonist of Andrew Sean Greer’s latest novel, Less, the answer is clear: run away. This funny and engaging picaresque novel is a departure for Greer, who is best known for his inventive historical fiction, like The Confessions of Max Tivoli and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. Greer is a masterful author, and he brings along all his writerly chops from his past five books. Less teases readers with a mysterious, impossibly omniscient narrator and an artfully structured plot.
The novel opens with Arthur Less, a life-weary Eeyore staring down the big 5-0 and feeling like the only gay man to have ever grown old. Then Freddy, his much younger, part-time lover of the past nine years—the one Less keeps warning not to become too attached to him—tells Less he’s met somebody else. When the wedding invitation arrives, Less, a midlist novelist on the decline, opens his desk drawer and fishes his hand through a sea of mediocre professional invitations. If he accepts them all he could cobble together 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 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 becoming a commitment-phobe:
Arthur Less has, for the past decade and a half, remained a bachelor. This came after a long period of living with the older poet Robert Brownburn, a tunnel of love he entered at twenty-one and exited, blinking in the sunlight, in his thirties. Where was he? Somewhere in there he lost the first phase of youth, like the first phase of a rocket; it had fallen, depleted, behind him. And here was the second. And last. He 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 for the past fifteen years has been to “renounce love completely.” He can have lovers, but he will not grow close. Hence his treatment of Freddy. And his impulse to flee.
As a picaresque novel, Less is satirical and episodic, and it follows the protagonist as he muddles through this trip. The structure of the novel mirrors Less’s 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 as Less enters new situations, the memories of his past create a certain consistency—for him and the reader—the emotional equivalent of eating at McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées.
Less doesn’t intend for this to be a soul-searching trip—this is no fictional Eat, Pray, Love—but 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, like a kid with his face pressed against the glass. 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. She continues, “What if one day you meet someone, Arthur, and it feels like it could never be anyone else. . . . Is it like that with this Freddy?” He only manages to stammer. 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?” This is where the novel really shines, in the surprising moments of tenderness, when Less’s armor is punctured and he’s forced to face his ache inside.
Throughout, there’s a whiff of metafiction in this novel about a novelist writing a book about a gay man at midlife, a book that Less believes will be “the one” to propel him out of the midlist, finally. 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. Less lugs his novel along on his round-the-world trip in the hope that a new location will bring a fresh perspective. Thankfully, Greer reaches beyond satire to give sincere glimpses into the character’s writing process. There are a few scattered spots (I wish there were more) where Greer describes the interior act of writing and the working of a creative mind. Though short, they’re some of the best representations of the writing process I’ve read.
Less is dedicated to Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) and while the book is intended to be funny, at times it feels like a middle-aged man’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. His events aren’t catastrophes—there’s no death, no cancer—and sometimes the madcap mishaps teeter close to farce. For example, when Less locks himself out of his fourth floor apartment, he leaps across from the exterior hallway to his kitchen window, dangling from the sill until he manages to pull himself in. By the second half of the book, the cumulative effect of all the absurd obstacles begins to slow down the deeper plot—his quest for the meaning of love in his life. But if readers push through, the story picks up and the ending is wholly satisfying as it circles around and brings Less home. Ultimately, it’s the compassion that Greer shows his characters, especially Less and Freddy, that cause this novel to rise above being merely an enjoyable read or a series of comical events. Less is touching and true with catch-you-by-surprise moments of tenderness, and, by journey’s end, Arthur Less and readers are changed and triumphant.