From where I sit,” Andrew Sean Greer begins his 2018 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Less, “the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.” It’s an almost perfect opening. Less himself may not narrate Greer’s comic novel, but the narrator is also a character, or will be revealed as one. That makes this first sentence absolutely necessary and yet also absolutely subtle: an element that establishes, or hints at, certain possibilities; a setting of the stage for what’s to come.
This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.
Less, after all—the fictional creation, that is, as opposed to the fiction Greer has written—is nothing if not hapless, a gay man on the cusp of 50, whatever promise he may have had (his first book was a “moderate success”) now a memory, if not an albatross. As the novel begins, he has come to New York to do an onstage interview with “famous science fiction author H.H.H. Mandern”; think George R.R. Martin with a twist. The interview is a money gig, of course it is, or a way of staying visible. But it is also a MacGuffin in the most classic sense. What I mean is that Less is deep into avoidance: of his stalled career, the dismays of aging, but also something more emotionally distressing, the impending wedding of his former boyfriend.
Less, in other words, is at loose ends.
On the one hand, Greer’s novel is a deft and funny satire about what it is to be a writer, all the scorekeeping and jockeying, the concerns about measuring up. On the other, it becomes a kind of picaresque. To dodge his troubles, Less embarks on a series of travels, accepting an award he never knew existed, attending a literary festival in Mexico. His own most recent novel, Swift, has been rejected by his publisher. He has nowhere to turn. “These walk-around-town books, these day-in-the-life stories,” his agent tells him, “I know writers love them. But I think it’s hard to feel bad for this Swift fellow of yours.” And yet, roam though Less might, he must confront what he, like everyone, knows too well: no matter where you go, there you are.
I don’t want to give away the twist here; it’s the essence of the book. It comes late, and when it lands, we see Less in an entirely different light. Meanwhile, Greer pulls off a high-wire act, turning to comedy to balance his character’s ineptitude, his unerring ability to get into situations over his head, with his very human longings, his failings, and his broken heart. “Where is the real Less?” Greer writes. “Less the young man terrified of love? The dead-serious Less of twenty-five years ago? Well, he has not packed him at all. After all these years, Less doesn’t even know where he’s stored.”
For Greer, these are the essential questions. His novel, it turns out, is less about Less trying to survive as a writer than it is about the wrestling he must do with himself. His disassociation is our disassociation, which only means that he is human at the core.
Who is Arthur Less, really? In the end, he is every one of us.•