Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is an uncomfortable read. Can I admit that? It’s not a convoluted novel or even a long one. But I have to push myself to keep reading, to stay in its cringe comedy. This is where I write something about its being too close to home: Greer seizes upon the unpleasantness of being a fragile writer in the world, and he milks it. It makes me squirm.
Less lives at the intersection of laughter and sadness, which can feel like a struggle for how close it gets to our vulnerabilities. I read this book and I’m transported to my first MFA lunch, looking for a place to sit and assuming I have no place in the room. But as much as it pains me to read about—and live through—the absurdity of an earnest life, it’s fascinating. I believe in seeking out uncomfortable reads. I want to observe that, to lean toward the unpleasant feeling, to investigate the how and why of it. The best books challenge us, offering up an unspoken secret, or a point of view, or a reflection of our behavior that asks us to see our imperfections. The book forces author readers to confront our own desperation. Less is a tragicomic farce that skewers both its own hero and the peripatetic journey he takes. And it’s funny—very.
Arthur Less, our hero in this conversationally narrated tale, “once pink and gold with youth” but now faded like an old sofa, is a midcareer novelist of some success—not enough to be of any significance, save for an association with a previous generation’s group of famous writers. His greatest work to date is “Kalipso: a retelling of the Calypso myth from The Odyssey, with a World War II soldier washed ashore in the South Pacific and brought back to life by a local man who falls in love with him and must help him find a way back to his world, and to his wife back home.”
Arthur struggles to move forward, both in work and in romance. His ex-lover is getting married, and he wants to get out of town to escape his feelings. Greer uses this distance to force us to sit with our own familiar rejection, awkwardness, and disgust. When the wedding invitation arrives, he recalls the unanswered requests for his appearance at middling author events around the world. He jumps at them, eager to escape the reality of discomfort at home by cobbling together events in Italy, Morocco, Germany, India, and Japan. The problem with this is that, like all of us, he brings his neuroses with him.
This isn’t a book about Arthur growing easy with himself or about his self-improvement. Slights are minor—the awkwardness of conversations while traveling, an event host asking him what it’s like not to be a genius, a pedantic dig in a remembered New York Times review—but they do touch on the negative ways that we see ourselves or the ways that we interpret others’ actions to mean that we are insignificant. Am I writing about myself here? Probably, you feel that. But in the world of a writer—at least one hungry for recognition or connection with a community—all slights serve to confirm anxiety about self-worth. The underlying truth of our inferiority. Our unsuitability. A negative bias takes over: we begin to accept the doubt that comes from the accumulation of minor insults.
Less is inside baseball, but that’s exactly the point. The entirely self-referential plot, the meta commentary on the book world, the existential ridiculousness of literary awards. Descriptions of what it’s like to serve on a literary panel with an anemic audience or to walk into an event that is not as presented. Am I writing about myself again? Weaklings, unite.
Greer chips away at his hero’s resolve. Each stop on his literary journey features encounters with hosts who reveal Arthur’s flaws. Greer’s tongue is implanted firmly in his cheek. Arthur’s name provides continued opportunities for puns, sprinkled throughout literary allusions in both form and content. Arthur, an enthusiastic but untalented speaker of German, “is ear poisoning the people of Berlin.” And he loses “so much along the way: his lover, his dignity, his beard, his suit, and his suitcase.” No episodic tale here of vanquishing one’s foes to reveal ever more valor. Rather, each stop strips Arthur of another layer of belief that he matters.
Arthur is a hero for the too-eager set. Those of us who are too earnest, too invested, too thin in our skin. He’s responsible for his own setbacks, which is both the best and the worst thing. “He kisses,” our narrator tells us, “how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can only use the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you. There are some men who have never been kissed like that.” He’s too much.
What Greer gets at is the idea that we can be too much for this world and find a place in it anyway. Less examines how those of us who believe in the “bad poetry of it all” are sometimes doomed to uncomfortable realities. Life is uncomfortable. And yet.•
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 book. Register for the event.