Arthur Less is concerned. About getting older, for one (his fiftieth birthday is fast approaching). About his stalled career (he has written one moderately successful novel, but has been unable to sell anything else). About love, most of all (a past flame is dying while a more recent one is moving on). And so when he receives an invitation to the wedding of his most recent ex, he just decides to run away. In true chaotic and novel fashion, he does this by accepting each and every invitation to a talk, interview, conference, teaching position he has been offered over the past year. His hasty, haphazard plan ends up taking him around the world — literally. But while Arthur Less will find that, however far from home he may be, his worries and anxieties that have caused his life and career to stagnate, are never really far behind, and somewhere along the way, he will have to find the courage to finally face them.
First read of the new year! It was fine! That was my reaction immediately after finishing Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. Just… this is fine. At best, I thought it was a clever, charming little book; at worst, I wondered just how this managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction because it seemed — as the title suggests — such a small and slight story. Not really an auspicious start to my reading year, to say the least.
But it’s a week later and I reflect back on the story and go through my notes, I find myself responding much more warmly to it. (That happens with books sometimes. Some stories just need a little space.) I rather liked a lot of the acerbic humor and dry wit of the book (courtesy of the novel’s mysterious narrator), with the first half of the book boasting the kind of carefree, irreverent tone that I just really enjoy reading.
“As with almost every sunset, but with this one in particular: shut the fuck up.”
And actually the reason I was so initially underwhelmed after finishing the book mostly had to do with the fact that it abandons this tone towards the end, in favor of a much more contemplative, maudlin mood. Which is fine and lovely, but not what I wanted out of the novel.
What I responded to the most was the novel’s protagonist, who, appropriately, turns out to be the book’s saving grace. Less is an absurd, lovely mass of anxiety and contradictions who has, as one character points out, “bumbled through every moment and been a fool; you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path” but who still manages, somehow, someway, to come out the other side relatively unscathed and, indeed, somehow, someway, better than before. As someone who inadvertently wanders and wonders through life in a similar fashion, I found Arthur Less highly relatable. I wanted him to emerge from his trials and tribulations, not victorious, but enlightened. He’s the sort of character who, while frustrating and ridiculous (again: highly relatable), you can’t help but cheer on.
So while it may initially ring hollow and superficial, Less is actually less that, and more of a modest and understated meditation on love and lust and loss; on writing and wandering; on anxiety and acceptance. It turns out to be well worth your while.
(And maybe it’s an auspicious start to my reading year after all.)