Less by Andrew Sean Greer
2018 Pulitzer Prize winning fiction
WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T RUN AWAY FROM YOUR PROBLEMS?
Arthur Less is a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the post: it is from an ex-boyfriend of nine years who is engaged to someone else. Arthur can’t say yes — it would be too awkward; he can’t say no — it would look like defeat. So, he begins to accept the invitations on his desk to half-baked literary events around the world.
From France to India, Germany to Japan, Arthur almost falls in love, almost falls to his death, and puts miles between him and the plight he refuses to face. Less is a novel about mishaps, misunderstandings and the depths of the human heart.
Literary awards are rarely sufficient motivation for me to choose one title over another — the enjoyment of literature being notoriously subjective — but since Andrew Sean Greer’s Less was already on my wishlist, its recent Pulitzer Prize win firmed up my decision to purchase.
What immediately struck me was the unusual narrative structure… predominantly first-person present tense (identity undisclosed) yet omnipresent.
From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.
Look at him: seated primly on the hotel lobby’s plush sofa, blue suit and white shirt, legs knee-crossed so that one polished loafer hangs free of its heel. The pose of a young man.
But on occasion more like third-person. It is both confounding and intriguing.
While it is clear this narrator is a person that has been in Arthur Less’s life (and thus a character mentioned within the novel), it is not plausible that this person is observing him in the present tense. The only way it works is if that narrator, at some later point having heard of Arthur’s travel tales, is imagining observing him in those situations. It took a little while for me to get my head around this; to stop fighting it. Eventually, the quirkiness and lyricism of the observations made by the narrator and their ironic and conversational tone won me over.
Once in his twenties, a poet he had been talking with extinguished her cigarette in a potted plant and said, “You’re like a person without skin.” A poet had said this. One who made her living flaying herself alive in public had said the he, tall and young and hopeful Arthur Less, was without skin. But it was true.
I found myself highlighting countless passages, admiring the subtle yet potent irony woven into this novel’s fabric.
There are always a few drops left in the bottle of indignity.
With regards to its subject matter, this novel — about writers, writing and the broader challenges of a career and life involving creative personas — is effectively preaching to the converted. Literary references abound.
“He kisses — how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you.
While Arthur Less’ rudderlessness limits the extent one invests in his plight, his eclectic travel experiences and the intrigue surrounding the narrator’s identity make for compelling reading. Recent events have also injected an additional, delightful stroke of serendipity to this tale.
But it is the more serious emotional and philosophical depths plumbed by Greer’s narrator, combined with his lead character’s absence of expectation, that ultimately make this novel life-affirming.
Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is a title I highly recommend, but only to those with strong literary leanings.
Review originally published at bookloverbookreviews.com