In 1872, the eminent French author Jules Verne published Around the World in Eighty Days, chronicling an epic adventure that flowed from a rash wager: in the stuffy yet progressive confines of London’s Reform Club, Phileas Fogg bets £20,000 that within three months he can circumnavigate the globe with his valet and Sancho Panza–style sidekick, Passepartout. Fogg—whose name puns on Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, also connected to the Reform Club—avails himself of emerging technologies such as steamships and railroads as he and Passepartout trek east to west.
Around the World in Eighty Days, then, joined the vaunted tradition of the picaresque, at its heart a comic form. Midway through his exquisitely crafted, Pulitzer Prize–winning Less, Andrew Sean Greer gives the game away, recasting Verne’s classic as a contemporary queer picaresque. He spins the jokes brilliantly, layering hilarious scene on hilarious scene, but there’s a glimmer of melancholy beneath the surface. During a layover in Paris, his protagonist, Arthur Less—a middle-aged San Francisco–based author, onetime partner of the ailing renowned poet Robert Brownburn (a mash-up of poets Browning and Burns)—attends a soigné reception near the Eiffel Tower. Arthur is dispirited: he’s broke, his publisher has just rejected his new manuscript, and his former part-time lover, the younger Freddy Pelu, is marrying another man. Exit east, Arthur has decided. But at the reception, he encounters a rival, Finley, who questions Arthur’s jerry-rigged journey, bouncing from author panels to a German teaching gig to a retreat in India: “‘Le tour de monde en quatre-vingts jours,’ Finley murmurs, peering up at the ceiling. ‘Do you have a Passepartout?’ Less answers: ‘No. I’m alone. I’m traveling alone.’”
Arthur is in the thick of his own adventure, whose chronology maps closely to that in Verne’s book. It’s fair to assume he is Greer’s avatar: roughly the same age, with the same blond good looks and mid-Atlantic roots. Arthur’s odyssey commences in New York. Greer’s quicksilver language, his command of interlocking sentences, his self-referential foregrounding of comedy—all leap off the page. (Variations of “comedy” and “comic” are sprinkled liberally throughout the novel.)
It is an autumn New York morning, and therefore glorious.… [Less’s] clothes are still clean and neat, socks still paired, blue suit unwrinkled, toothpaste still American and not some strange foreign flavor. Bright-lemon New York light flashing off the skyscrapers, onto the quilted aluminum sides of food carts, and from there onto Arthur Less himself. Even the mean delighted look from the lady who would not hold the elevator, the humor-free girl at the coffee shop, the tourists standing stock-still on busy Fifth Avenue, the revved-up accosting hawkers (“Mister, you like comedy? Everybody likes comedy!”), the toothache sensation of jackhammers in concrete—none of it can dull the day.
From New York he flies to Mexico, then to Italy, where he wins an award, and then on to a five-week academic stint in Germany, where he indulges in a casual relationship. He’s trying to forget Freddy. On deck: Paris, more than a blip on the itinerary, but he’s then off with other clueless Westerners on a glamping expedition in Morocco, bobbing astride a camel and crossing over into his sixth decade. Rumpled in an Indian airport, he’s observed by a seven-year-old boy “attuned to comedy” even at a young age.
Greer tinkers with technique while preserving the narrative conventions of picaresque. Rarely does his narrator step from behind the curtain, but by the end of Less, we already know who’s telling the tale: the person who knows Arthur best. And yet Arthur is less appealing than perhaps Greer realizes when a character, Zohra, points her lack of sympathy out to him: he’s obsessed with money and status, the undoing of many a writer, and tormented by aging, the bane of many a gay man: “He is grieving, for sure—the loss of his lover, his career, his novel, his youth—so why not cover the mirrors, rend the fabric over his heart, and just let himself mourn?” Like Phileas Fogg, Arthur’s cushioned by privilege and a quasi-theological belief in the meritocracy that would be blasted to smithereens during the Trump presidency. (Published in 2017, Less seems a holy relic of the Obama era, a throwback to a naïveté so near and yet so far.) It never occurs to Arthur that most normies don’t have the luxury of running away; he never transcends his Umwelt, a German noun that translates roughly as “sensory bubble,” popularized by Ed Yong’s bestselling An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. Like everything else in the 21st century, picaresques have been co-opted by elites.
But who among us wouldn’t trade in mortgages and car pools and the burdens of pediatric appointments for a Lessian escape? After a hiatus in Japan, Arthur flies back to San Francisco, embracing a new life, which is his old life repurposed. Greer’s all about the bons mots, which fuel Less like a nuclear reactor. “No more will I go all around the world,” Bing Crosby crooned in the theme song for the 1956 film version of Around the World in Eighty Days, “for I have found my world in you.” And true to the structure of picaresque, Arthur claims love—and valor and compassion—at the end of the road.•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, February 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Greer will join CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Less. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the novel. Register here for the event.