Arthur Less is full of doubt. Faced with filling out a questionnaire at his doctor’s office, he finds himself confronted with a question we all face, but rarely in an existentially threatening way. Who is his emergency contact, and what, exactly, is the nature of their relationship? An inquisitive phlebotomist needs to know. As with many things in his life, Less equivocates. The contact is his current lover (and our narrator, Freddy Pelu), but in the space normally reserved for “husband” or “partner,” he writes: Uncertain.
This is not the only thing that makes Less unsure. His life in San Francisco, already on shaky ground, is starting to wobble in unforeseen ways. His career is not working out as he’d hoped; he fears he might be a “bad gay” or bad at being gay; his partner has run out of patience; and when Less’s former lover, mentor, and laissez-faire landlord dies, he finds himself owing a massive amount of back rent.
And so Arthur Less is called to adventure, shoved into motion by the Fates and the need to make some bank. What follows is a classic hero’s journey: a generational-trauma, relationship-in-crisis road trip comedy about abandonment issues and a whole bunch more. It might not be The Odyssey, but it is an odyssey, fraught with perils—hurricanes, nudists, parents seeking forgiveness—and encounters that will transform him.
Some of this—the character, certainly—will be familiar if you’ve read Andrew Sean Greer’s 2017 novel, Less. That book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; five years later, Greer is back with a sequel, Less Is Lost, which continues the story of Arthur Less, minor American novelist, who drives myopically through life and love like Mr. Magoo.
But Less Is Lost is a looser, shaggier book than its predecessor, and all the more enjoyable for it.
As in the previous novel, Less is paired with H.H.H. Mandern, an author with George R.R. Martin levels of fame and initials who is generous with his wisdom, his camper van, and his pug named Dolly. As the writers drive across the Southwest, Less can’t help but compare his middling career with the wild success Mandern enjoys. Like a lot of writers, Less is plagued by constant insecurity and the ego-battering indifference of the public. Is being a writer worth it? For Less, “it’s impossible to answer because it is all he knows. It’s like asking a dung beetle if it’s worth it. Of course there’s a better way to be, of course there’s an easier life—one could be a leopard or a crocodile! But a dung beetle is good at only one thing.”
Since Mandern has to finish a novel, Less carries on. An amateur theater troupe has adapted one of his stories into a musical, so he joins the group on a tour of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. This journey plunges him headfirst into American weirdness—the RV parks, roadhouses, and scruffy southern towns. Greer could have found easy humor mocking rednecks and the MAGA-minded, but he’s too openhearted. Instead, Less is asking deeper questions. What is America? What does it mean to be a middle-aged gay man in the heart of it? And how will this experience change Arthur Less?
There’s something undeniably delicious about a writer on a heroic quest in a story written by a writer on a quest to understand the heroic.
“Only those still at the beginning of this novel,” Greer insists, “would trust the Author knows what He is doing. While Less, being an author himself, knows that no authors know what they are doing.” Not knowing what you are doing, being disoriented, becomes a liberating experience. As his creator elaborates, “Less has come alive to his senses, his curiosity, his fears, his memory, and entered that separate realm of being in which the outer world does not vanish, not at all, but pricks with painful detail, the province not of the reader or the critic but of that suffering creature trapped behind the looking glass: the writer. For now Less is paying attention.”
Christopher Isherwood famously said, “I am a camera.” That is what writers do. They pay attention to the world and document it in their own way. By the end of his odyssey, Less is awake not only to the world but also to his emotional life, to what is meaningful, to the sweetness at the center of his baffled heart.•