My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Less (2017) by Andrew Sean Greer is a cute book about a gay novelist named Arthur Less on a world trip seeking escape and self-discovery through reflection as his 50th birthday approaches.
Less (the book, not the character) could be compared in many ways to Jules Verne’s French novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) and often makes references to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Arthur Less is wanting to escape his ex-lover’s wedding and takes a semi-professional trip from California to New York, to Mexico, to Italy, to Germany, to France, to Morocco, to India, to Japan, and back to California.
Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and marks the third straight year Columbia University (the organization behind the Pulitzer) awarded minority fiction: 2016, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015) is a book about a Vietnamese refugee by a Vietnamese refugee; 2017, The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, 2016) is a book about an African-American by an African-American; 2018, Less (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2017) is a book about a gay novelist by a gay novelist.
One can tell that Andrew (who is an identical twin) and Arthur (a metaphorical twin to Andrew) have much in common and the book comes off far more autobiographical and far more revealing about “gay culture” than probably intended by its gay, struggling author (prior to the book’s publication in 2017) writing about a gay, struggling author:
“In those days, Arthur Less was far from faithful. It was the way of things among the men they knew, and it was something he and Robert never spoke of. If on his errands he met a handsome man with a free apartment, Less might be willing to dally for half an hour before he came home. And once he took a real lover. Someone who wanted to talk, who came just short of asking for promises. At first it was a wonderful, casual connection not very far from his home, something easy to grab on an afternoon or when Robert was on a trip” (p 58).
“I remember when I sold my first book, the head of the publishing house sat me down in his office, and he gave me this long speech about how he knew they didn’t pay very much, but they were a family, and I was now part of that family, they were investing in me not for this book but for my entire career. That was only fifteen years ago. And bam—I’m out. Some family” (p 169).
Like Arthur, Andrew experienced something similar by his original publisher Picador (an imprint under London-based Macmillan Publishers) who published How It Was for Me (2000) and The Path of Minor Planets (2001). Then, after only two years, Andrew was out at Picador, roughly “fifteen years ago” at the time of the pre-publication of Less.
A few years after being dropped by Picador, Andrew was signed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint in New York also under London-based Macmillan Publishers) and the company published The Confessions of Max Tivoli (2003) and The Story of a Marriage (2008). Then, after only two books, Andrew was out at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (and out at London-based Macmillan Publishers).
Good luck or bad luck? One never knows these things.
For Andrew, no new books for almost ten years. That is until one of Andrew’s friends from California named Viet Thanh Nguyen (a Vietnamese refugee) wins the Pulitzer Prize in 2016, and later gives Andrew a much needed boost in his career as a “minor novelist” (p 96) a year later when Andrew is picked up and published by Lee Boudreaux Books, an imprint under Little, Brown and Company (an imprint of Hachette Book Group, which is owned by French-based Hachette Livre, which is owned by the French company Lagardère Group)—which is a publishing company that has deep ties to Columbia University. Below is where Andrew betrays his friend—left nameless for good reasons in his book—as the narrator describes an earlier visit to Vietnam where Arthur Less has bought his beloved “blue suit” (a metaphor for his Vietnamese friend/colleague who has revived Andrew’s writing career by helping Andrew win the Pulitzer):
“There is no Arthur Less without the suit. Bought on a whim, in that brief era of caprice three years ago when he threw caution (and money) to the wind and flew to Ho Chi Minh City to visit a friend on a work trip, searching for air-conditioning in that humid, moped-plagued city, found himself in a tailor shop, ordering a suit. Drunk on car exhaust and sugarcane, he made a series of rash decisions, gave his home address, and by the next morning had forgotten all about it… Finally, at his advanced age, he has struck the right note. He looks good, and he looks like himself. Without it, somehow he does not. Without the suit, there is no Arthur Less” (p 25).
A grand wink. Profound. Especially when one begins to break down Andrew’s life and writing career against Arthur’s life and writing career.
What is far more thought-provoking than friends helping friends (as they say: it’s not easy being a writer), the professional nepotism (of organizations helping certain organizations) in American publishing and these key organizations providing the “literary awards”, and the British/French driven publishing in the United States is how “American Culture” is criticized and viewed in a mocking tone by the gay community and by the communities in the United Kingdom & France:
“From the other window, near Central Park, he sees the sign for the Hotel New Yorker. They are not kidding, no sir. No more than the New England inns called the Minuteman and the Tricorner are kidding, with their colonial cupolas topped with wrought iron weather vanes, their cannonball pyramids out front, or the Maine lobster pounds called the Nor’easter, hung with traps and glass buoys, are kidding, or the moss-festooned restaurants in Savannah, or the Western Grizzly Dry Goods, or the Florida Gator This and Gator That, or even the Californian Surfboard Sandwiches and Cable Car Cafés and Fog City Inn, are kidding. Nobody is kidding. They are dead serious. People think of Americans as easygoing, but in fact they are all dead serious, especially about their local culture; they name their bars ‘saloons’ and their shops ‘Ye Olde’; they wear the colors of the local high school team; they are Famous for Their Pies. Even in New York City” (p 33).
“I know them. I teach every one of them in my course on middle-American poetry, by which I don’t mean the middle America of small minds and malt shops, or midcentury America, but rather the middle, the muddle, the void of America” (pgs 55-56).
Straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth, wouldn’t you say?
More a travelogue encased in semi-witless humor, Less by Andrew can have its special moments when the writer pokes his head out from the holes of sexuality, political propaganda, and cultural indoctrination and evolves to reveal his own humanity in the form of youth, beauty, age (timeless human characteristics even from the age of Keats):
“Nearly fifty, nearly fifty. But in this country [France], in this city [Paris], in this quarter, in this room—filled with exquisite outrages of fur and leather, subtleties of hidden buttons and seams, colors shaded only from film noir classics, with the rain-speckled skylight above and the natural fir flooring below, the few warm bulbs like angels hanged from the rafters, and Enrico clearly a bit in love with this charming American—Less looks transformed. More handsome, more confident. The beauty of youth somehow taken from its winter storage and given back to him in middle age” (p 137).
“Why have these memories been brought out again, here in Japan—the orange scarf, the garden—like a yard sale of his life? He has lost his mind, or is everything a reflection? The butter bean, the mugwort, the scarf, the garden; is this not a window but a mirror? Two birds are quarreling in the fountain. Again, as he did as a boy, he can only look on. He closes his eyes and begins to cry” (p 254).
Andrew even sums up Less with a single line: “The city of youth, the country of age” (p 112).
What determines a “great” novelist is how that writer evokes the “humanity” of the situation and the story’s character(s); how that writer digs deeper than she has ever done before to find that which unites us all; how she tosses away malleable ideas that divide, such as politics and identity; how she writes as though the page is a mirror, a reflection, of her own humanity.
If Andrew and Arthur could do more of that, no other writer would come close. Arthur would never need his “blue suit” again. Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.
In the end, Less is an amusing and an enjoyable read, and a strong reminder that sometimes we need less and not more.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 390,000+ followers