In the first few pages of Less, I admit, I thought that perhaps I’d made a mistake—or that the Pulitzer Prize committee had, in awarding the book the 2018 prize for fiction. The start of the book felt like a version of what Arthur Less, the central character and a midlist-level author, describes his most recent (rejected) novel to be: “… About a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco. And, you know, his … his sorrows….”
“Is it a white middle-aged man?” he is asked. Yes, he admits.
“A white middle-aged man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows?”
“Jesus, I guess so,” he answers.
“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”
It was a surprise, then, to find myself slowly coming to love the self-esteem-challenged, bumbling, generous, sweet, reluctantly aging, possibly talented–and yes, gay–Arthur, dealing with simultaneously turning fifty and losing his much younger lover by planning a trip around the world. He accepts expenses-paid invitations for odd panels, award ceremonies, and author residencies to finance the journey, which allows him to give a reasonable excuse for turning down an invitation to his ex-lover’s wedding. What could go wrong?
The trip gives Greer an opportunity to gently lampoon the life of a mid-list author—the weird situations, which Arthur accepts genially, and the constant self-doubt, which just adds to Arthur’s unwitting charm. All of his travel adventures are awkward and amusing, but the excursion to Germany is laugh-out-loud funny, largely due to Arthur’s overestimation of his German-speaking talents. I found myself wishing I knew German, so that I could understand the humor here at its deepest level, but truly, the author manages to convey Arthur’s unknowing mistakes and the Germans’ bemusement at his odd pronouncements with skill and endearing humor.
Less is a rather short book, but it nonetheless manages to thoughtfully examine themes of love, family, genius and mediocrity, the creative process, and aging. Illness, tailors, the Odyssey, and Charlie Chaplin all serve to shine light on Arthur’s inner and outer journeys, with gentle pokes at poets and Little League along the way. The main character’s naive innocence and sentimentality are wholly believable and adorable, but they also allow the author to sneak in sharp, humorous, sometimes unexpected observations about the human condition.
When Arthur has made his indelible mark in Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, and India, with a quick trip to Japan on the horizon, he encounters his supposed nemesis, who poignantly cuts to the chase, explaining to Arthur with some reluctance: “You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool; you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won. And you don’t even realize it.” Greer does a masterful job of making sure that we laugh at the crazy situations in which Arthur finds himself, at his quirks, occasionally even at his thought processes, but never really at Arthur himself. Because in the heartwarming end, no one can help loving lovable Arthur Less, whether he recognizes it or not.