By Andrew Sean Greer
(Little, Brown and Company, 2017)
Pardon me. Clearly, this is no way to begin a review of a Putlizer Prize-winning novel. I first read Less in the summer of 2017, rushing to the store and buying a copy during the first week it was on the shelves. Actually, it was on a table at the very front of the store, a grand tower of light blue hard covers pegged as quick sales. This was before it had been bestowed any astonishing award, but only a few days after a glowing review appeared on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. All this for a gay-themed novel by a gay writer. You bet I was jealous.
I had to read Less. As a gay writer with several works in progress involving gay protagonists, I hoped Less would be a beacon, a wake-up call to the publishing industry that gay fiction can sell broadly. I wanted agents and editors writing in all caps on their manuscript wish lists, SEND ME YOUR GAY BOOKS, SOMETHING LIKE LESS. Maybe this novel would lead to agent wanting something maybe by an unheard of writer like, ahem, me.
As can happen when a particular thing—a movie, a book, a vegan Crispy “Chickun” Burger—gets raves, it can lead to expectations that are too high and, ultimately, disappointment. (I know some of you are thinking, Raves for a VEGAN burger? Preposterous! They shall always disappoint. I hear this every time I let the V-word slip into conversation with my best friend, a hard-core carnivore. We try to stick to less touchy topics where we can find common ground these days: old-school Seals and Crofts songs, “This Is Us,” structural racism.)
From the review in The New York Times, I’d expected I’d have to read the book while wearing a bib, frequently wiping away saliva as I drooled over Andrew Sean Greer’s prose. I’d anticipated a severely bruised tush from repeatedly falling out of my chair, the thud of my body hitting the floor failing to interrupt robust guffaws. I’d hoped Less would inspire my own writing, pushing me to be better.
Alas, reading Less was like eating a certain “chickun” burger. Less proved to be less. (It’s a risky book title, don’t you think?)
The (mis)adventures of Arthur Less didn’t stand a chance. I do recall that there were sentences that wowed me, isolated nuggets of wit and refreshing phrasing. But Greer had this annoying habit of setting up a scene and then digressing at length. It begins with the scene that opens the book. Arthur Less, a middling author, sits in a hotel lobby in New York City, a Russian cosmonaut’s helmet curiously resting on his lap as he waits for an escort to take him to a much hyped book event. No, Less is not the person of honor for this event. They just needed some other published writer to lead the Q and A of legendary sci-fi writer H.H.H. Mandern. Part of the indignity of being a lesser author like Less is that his escort doesn’t have a clue what he looks like; she doesn’t even get the gender right, approaching women in the lobby, asking, “Are you Miss Arthur?” This plays out well enough for the first half dozen pages, setting up what is sure to be a disastrous event but then the novel goes into thirty pages of its first digression. Lots and lots of backstory—two days prior, two decades prior. Even when Greer finally returns to the book event he’d set up, that’s as far as he takes it. The scene never plays out. Arthur Less is off to Mexico.
It felt like a messy read. There are always risks when a writer strays from a linear plot. Momentum can be lost. There’s potential for imbalance, whereby the reader cares more about one period of time than another, thus resenting every time the story reverts back to the less-desired era. Sometimes the author himself is guilty of making a certain time frame little more than a device to explain another. (Note that the seemingly randomly cited “This Is Us” is nonlinear and usually shines because of it, aside from a dull Vietnam War plot.) From the outset, I suppose I was miffed. I wanted the opening scene to play out without interruption. It rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think I ever recovered. I finished the book and moved on, deciding that Andrew Sean Greer and/or his agent and/or his publisher had the right connections to land a gushing review in The New York Times. Like so many gay things, I just didn’t connect with it.
And then Less won the Pulitzer Prize. Cue: rampant writer envy. I’m sure I swore when I read the news. Sometimes it falls flat to say “No way!” without a choice expletive wedged in the middle. Not as bad as “Titanic” winning the Best Picture Oscar or a certain sappy Mariah Carey duet staying at #1 forever on Billboard, but a head scratcher at the very least. I was less than impressed. (Again, that title invites negative commentary.)
As I prepared for a big move last year, I turfed so much. I gave my copy of Less plus some other mass appeal hard covers to a guy I was dating who professed to be a reader in the early going of our relationship. He wasn’t but, whatever. I knew I’d never read the book again.
About a month ago, for reasons that would unduly lengthen this already lengthy post, I surprised myself, deciding I needed to try Less again. (“Try less.” Doesn’t that sound like a mantra fit for a pandemic?) I picked it up at the library and gave it a go.
This time I knew about the wandering back and forth in the story. It also helped knowing the ending and casting aside the impossibility of the narrator knowing all of the comings and goings and exact conversations of Arthur Less. Instead of holding it up to greater scrutiny as a Pulitzer Prize piece of literature that drew raves from The New York Times, I simply read.
Perhaps I should give more things a second chance.
Arthur Less has embarked on a prolonged trip around the world, for the most part a stringing together of literary opportunities, all of it a distraction from his upcoming fiftieth birthday and the wedding of his much younger lover, Freddy Pelu, with whom Arthur had a nine-year affair that was supposed to be a mere convenience of companionship. It’s an elaborate itinerary just to decline an invitation to Freddy’s wedding, but Arthur needs to show he’s moved on with adventures awaiting in Germany, Morocco and Japan. Arthur tells himself all this has nothing to do with Freddy; rather, the message is for all Arthur’s acquaintances who will surely talk about his absence during the wedding reception. (Why, what else would they talk about?)
Greer offers many wonderful observations about accomplishment (and perceived lack thereof), about the awkwardness of social interactions and about aging. One of my favorite passages comes early on:
Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old. That is,
at least, how he feels at times like these. Here, in this tub, he
should be twenty-five or thirty, a beautiful young man naked
in a bathtub. Enjoying the pleasures of life. How dreadful if
someone came upon Less today: pink to his middle, gray to his
scalp, like those old double erasers for pencil and ink. He has
never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert.
He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much
beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’s generation
often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty. How
are they meant to do it? Do you stay a boy forever, and dye your
hair and diet to stay lean and wear tight shirts and jeans and go
out dancing until you drop dead at eighty? Or do you do the
opposite—do you forswear all that, and let your hair go gray,
and wear elegant sweaters that cover your belly, and smile on
past pleasures that will never come again? Do you marry and
adopt a child? In a couple, do you each take a lover, like matching
nightstands by the bed, so that sex will not vanish entirely? Or do
you let sex vanish entirely, as heterosexuals do? Do you experience
the relief of letting go of all that vanity, anxiety, desire, and pain?
Do you become a Buddhist? One thing you certainly do not do.
You do not take on a lover for nine years, thinking it is easy and
casual, and, once he leaves you, disappear and end up alone in a
hotel bathtub, wondering what now.
There were points at which I wondered if Greer and his editor might have had some serious discussions about the possibility of Greer cooling it with his propensity to list observations in oversized sentences. Sadly, if these conversations happened, the editor lost. We get single sentences like this one, below, as the protagonist observes things in a Mexican market and his guide asks if he has any food allergies or intolerances:
Bitter chocolates wrapped in paper, piled in ziggurats beside a
basket of Aztec whisks, shaped like wooden maces, and jars of
multicolored salts such as those Buddhist monks might use to
paint mandalas, along with plastic bins of rust- and cocoa-colored
seeds, which their guide explains are not seeds but crickets;
crayfish and worms both live and toasted, alongside the butcher’s
area of rabbits and baby goats still wearing their fluffy black-and-
white “socks” to prove they are not cats, a long glass butcher’s
case that for Arthur Less increases in horrors as he moves along it,
such that it seems like a contest of will, one he is sure to fail, but
luckily they turn down the fish aisle, where somehow his heart
grows colder among the gray speckled bodies of octopuses coiled
in ampersands, the unnamable orange fish with great staring eyes
and sharp teeth, the beaked parrotfish whose flesh, Less is told, is
blue and tastes of lobster (he smells a lie); and how very close this
all is to childhood haunted houses, with their jars of eyeballs,
dishes of brains and jellied fingers, and that gruesome delight he
felt as a boy.
There is a lot that I like in that “sentence”: the oft-heard sentiment that fish are lesser among animals, the parenthetical remark, the haunted house comparison; still, I shuddered, and not just because I’m a vegetarian.
Overall, I can now say that Less is a worthy read. I even want to seek out more from Greer. (Just in the past month, he reviewed the latest collection by David Sedaris in the heretofore mentioned New York Times Book Review. Hmm, some things in the book world feel a tad incestuous...) Have I come around, now agreeing it is deserving of the Pulitzer? No. But what the hell do I know? I’ve only read two prior winners, both required reading in high school, one a thumbs up (To Kill a Mockingbird), one decidedly thumbs down (Old Man and the Sea). I’m hardly highbrow. I’ve been known to read—and enjoy—books by Mindy Kaling and, as currently, Allie Brosh.
Maybe, just maybe, the jury was swayed by the prize getting a shout-out in the novel itself. As a writer, Less feels lesser than. There’s a scene—one of those many backstory bits—in which his older ex, Robert Brownburn yells out during a 1992 phone call, causing Arthur Less to come running.
Robert turned to face Less. “It was the Pulitzer committee,”
he said evenly. “It turns out I’ve been pronouncing it wrong
all these years.”
“It’s not Pew-lit-sir. It’s Pull-it-sir.” Robert’s eyes took
another survey of the room. “Holy fuck, Arthur, I won.”
If not a deciding factor, surely it caused jurors a smile. That Andrew Sean Greer is such a flirt!