by Andrew Sean Greer
Normally, I am not drawn to comedic novels, but Less had so many good reviews and the Pulitzer Prize to recommend it, so I put it on my reading list. I’m glad that I put my preconceptions aside to read it. Not only was it funny, clever, and charming, it was emotionally affecting.
When Arthur Less, a forty-nine (not yet fifty, thank you very much) minor novelist receives a wedding invitation for his former lover, Freddy’s wedding, he knows attending the ceremony would be too painful and humiliating; not attending would be just as bad. His solution: accept every literary event invitation he’s received, cobbling together an around-the-world itinerary that will take him away from San Francisco for several months.
The ingenious structure allows Less to encounter myriad settings and characters so we see him interact in different contexts. (Of course, the downside is that interesting characters make only a brief appearance, but isn’t that like life?) Many of these settings are literary events, such as an award ceremony, and much has been made of Greer’s parody of this milieu. Less’ name itself provides Greer ample opportunity to play on the meaning of the surname and reflect on feelings of anxiety and literally feeling less than others around him. Less’ novel-within-a-novel, Swift, and it’s changing focus parallels Less’ own journey.
Early in the novel, I was struck by its humor of the absurd when Arthur Less’ guides take him to the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. One of the guides, Fernando, tells Less about everything he must see in Mexico City, yet, every site is closed for renovations, to mount a new exhibit, or simply because it was Monday. Another very funny aspect was Less’ unshakable belief he was fluent in German, skilled enough to teach a five-week class in German in Berlin. Less is absolutely not fluent in German.
Yet, the novel at times unveils truths that are gut-wrenching, though Greer always presents these moments subtly and without pedantry. For example, Less, considering his upcoming fiftieth birthday, thinks that he has no gay role models for growing older. The generation before his never had the change to age as they were struck down by AIDS. In another moment, in India, Less, slightly irritated, wonders why so many people picnic on the grounds of the Christian retreat center where he booked himself without realizing the “brand,” is told that nowhere else is safe for the Christians to congregate. (He then castigates himself for being an asshole.)
So, in a sense, calling the novel comedic does it a disservice, insofar as comedic novels are viewed as frivolous and empty. Less is divinely funny but certainly not frivolous or empty. It is a satisfying read addressing serious issues that will make you laugh out loud.