Less: A Novel: Charming, sweet, and how did this win the Pulitzer again?

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A discussion of Less: A Novel should start, I suppose, with a brief history of how I ended up reading it. Like many of the books I read these days, I found Less at my local independent bookstore (thank you Unabridged, and whenever you want to start paying me for the free advertising, I’ll take it), atop a shelf in the queer section, a little recommendation next below it telling me that, according to Ianni or Jason or Janice, this book was the Bee’s Knees.

And I didn’t read it.

I wanted to read it. I meant to read it; it looked like a sweet, fun book, and I’d enjoyed the other books I found at Unabridged; my one true love, aka The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, had come from there, after all. And yet.

Perhaps it was the slightness of the premise, the fact that a book about a gay novelist traveling the world to avoid his ex’s wedding seemed specifically primed to fill every box in a checklist for “quirky romcom.” And while Unabridged had been kind to me, there have also been occasionally misses—Perfect Ten was a sweet, fun rom-com, but still came out feeling a little too light. (Maybe I’m also just not made for teen romcoms? Maybe.)

Then I walked back into Unabridged, saw Less on the front table with a sign that said “winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction,” and all my excuses came crashing down.

Surprise of all surprises, I loved it.

Less: A Novel is (as its title surely implies) a slightly, fairly unpresuming novel. Its protagonist is the equally unpresuming Arthur Less, a constantly uncertain gay novelist who, despite having been the paramour of the one of the most acclaimed members of the Russian River school, goes through life with the air of a tourist lost in an Asian street market.* While no longer young—his fiftieth birthday is approaching—Arthur is occasionally referred to throughout as “young Arthur Less,” a callback to his junior status among the Russian River** school artists as well as an apt descriptor of his perpetually lost and boyish demeanor. It is perhaps this boyishness that makes Arthur decide, upon getting the news that his long-term lover Freddy is getting married, to accept every literary invitation tossed his way so that he can avoid the wedding. As far as motivations go, this is a pretty poor excuse to go Around the World in 80 Days-ing, but Arthur, unfortunately, chooses not to focus on that bit of practical nonsense. And so: a series of (not quite) unfortunate events though New York, Europe, Africa, and Asia with Arthur Less taking on tin-prosed sci-fi authors, old lovers and literary enemies, and, of course, himself and the quiet line of regrets that run down his life.  

Taken at face value, Less: A Novel is a matryoshka doll of a novel: its protagonist is a middling gay writer about to turn fifty currently working on a novel about a middling gay man reflecting on the experience of turning fifty…all of which is written by Andrew Sean Greer, a gay novelist born in 1970. You can see where the edges start to blur. This kind of referentiality can be a little tiring – after a while, reading a roman-a-clefs can devolve into a scavenger hunt of who’s who and what maps on what – and, frankly, incredibly self-indulgent; the number of novels that exist about 20-something artistic types wandering a foreign city and trying to figure themselves out, as written by 28-year-olds who think they’re the first to discover the concept of the flaneur – yeah, no.  And yeah, reading Greer’s biography, it did strike me how much of the events in his novel reflected actual experiences in his life—like his protagonist, Greer is a gay novelist who has taught in Germany and interacted with the literary elite (Less through his association with the Russian River poets, Greer through his with the Iowa Writers Institute).

Somehow, though, the blatantly autobiographical elements didn’t strain my attention. Part of it is the humor: as Less himself finds while working on revisions on his novel, comedy—when properly done—has a way of making characters sympathetic in a way not necessarily found in po-faced tragedy. In making us laugh at a character’s foibles and fumbles, comedy makes us make feel fond of a character a little in the way watching a puppy fall over its own paws makes us fond of it. Less might be essentially Greer, but Greer has no qualms about poking gentle fun at Less’s neuroticism and misguided confidence in his German skills. Unlike certain authors who take the concept of self-insertion to mean reducing plot to a series of acid trips and shoplifting sprees from Whole Foods, Greer’s touch is light, Less inspired by his experiences but not modeled completely on them.

And then, of course, there are the meta-literary elements of Less’s status as an autobiographical novel. At multiple points, we hear critics’ opinions of Arthur Less’s work: too wistful, too sentimental, not political or angry enough (at some point someone calls Less a “bad gay” and…I’m not even that flavor of LGBT+, but same friend. Same). It’s all too easy to see these same critiques applied to Less itself, and seeing Less himself react in real time to critics makes it hard to level these arguments against Less the novel. Yes, it is a particularly clever bit of emotional manipulation—by making us feel for Less the writer, Greer is also priming us to feel for Greer the writer as well—but there are also some fairly nuanced explorations of ambition/genius/the status of being “good” when one associates with geniuses. As a fairly competitive/ambitious person who often worries about her ability to keep up with others (hello, imposter syndrome + Asian parent expectations!), these are musings that resonate with me as well. What, in the end, is it to live to fifty and realize that you have always been a touch above average at best, to come to the age where fresh starts begin to feel too late and too delusional? I’m half Arthur Less’s age, but also yeah: big mood.

As an author, Greer doesn’t exactly offer us definitive answers to the questions he raises, a move in line with the rest of the book. There’s a touch of A Man Called Ove in Less, less so (ha!) because the main character wants to commit dies than in the way Greer juxtaposes whimsy and seriousness. Less is essentially a warm, friendly book, but that warmth is also undercut with a very adult undercurrent of melancholy. Arthur Less is turning fifty, a milestone age at one starts looking down the other slope of the mountain; Ove Lindahl is a 59-year-old loner who has recently lost his wife. Yet for all the existential dread these situations could entail, the authors of both Ove and Less are uninterested in punishing their already melancholic protagonists. Bad things may happen to our characters, but so do good things—unexpected friends, good meals, strokes of fortune appearing when least expected. For all that these books are about mishaps, they are also very much about healing. They’re kind books, and in a world where kindness and optimism are equated with naivety, it’s difficult to believe that such a sweet, slight book as Less could win the Pulitzer.

I’m glad it did, though. Less might not be the great American novel, but it’s so charmingly aware of that fact—and so charmingly aware of itself in general—that it’s easy to forgive what could be seen as its slight tendency towards twee. Less might be sweet, but it’s not stupid: it knows there’s darkness in the world, but it chooses instead to focus on the moments of grace instead. Its optimism feels like a choice, rather than a product of ignorance, and that is a sentiment I can respect.

And does the ending, the hopeful reunion coinciding on our hero at last, feel perhaps a little contrived, a little too pat and easy? Perhaps. But what is to say that happy endings (even if that happiness is bittersweet, even if that happiness is temporary) are necessarily less realistic that Hamlet style shoot-outs?*** As his name makes immediately evident, Less is no tragic Greek hero or forgotten Anna Karenina; he is what he is, which is a mildly successful novelist who writes good if not Great work. And for the most part, the lives of us mortals do not end up written in soap opera proportions; we lead quiet little lives, and while very few of us do get our grand romance or happily ever after, few of us get cursed by vengeful fairies, either.

It’s a happy ending. Maybe not grandly happy and maybe not forever, but a moment of happiness nonetheless—and aren’t those, in the end, what we hold onto?

 

*As an accredited Asian (™), I a) can make that joke and b) have very much myself been that hapless American tourist in Beijing.

**Small note, but the satire of the Russian River School is very spot on—I actually know nothing about the Black Mountain poets, but don’t tell me this isn’t some kind of reference to the Black Mountain poets. Little touches like these remind you of Greer’s presence as an author while simultaneously reaffirming that old adage: it really is easier to write what you know.

***Yes, of course I know there are no shoot-outs in Hamlet, but I refuse to believe there hasn’t been a high school adaptation of Hamlet with vengeful gunslingers somewhere.

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