That ‘Suave Henchman, Pleasure’

In this newsletter, we introduce Michael Chabon as our special guest in conversation about Less, the February CBC selection, with author Andrew Sean Greer and host John Freeman.

andrew sean greer, michael chabon, less

We are thrilled to announce that author Michael Chabon will be our special guest in conversation with author Andrew Sean Greer to talk about Greer’s novel Less, the February California Book Club selection.

Chabon needs no introduction, but we’ll give it a shot.

In 2001, Chabon received a Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, an epic valentine to comics and escape. His novel Telegraph Avenue, set at the Berkeley-Oakland border, is about two families trying to save their record store, which is under threat from the megacorporation that comes into town. Chabon is also the author of a coming-of-age novel about gay and bisexual love, Mysteries of Pittsburgh; the comedy of errors Wonder Boys (made into a movie starring Michael Douglas as the literary wunderkind Grady Tripp, stuck on his sophomore book, and Tobey Maguire as his suicidal protégé); the alternative-history and detective story The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; and the memoir-esque novel Moonglow, in which a grandfather confesses his adventures.

In a riff on the oft-quoted Kafka line “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our souls” in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, Chabon writes of fiction, “It would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles.”

And nostalgia, a bittersweet love for what has vanished and for one’s life, is a recurring theme and element of the plots within Chabon’s genre-bending, literary novels. It is one of the things we use, psychologically, as humans forever subject to forces outside our control, to make things feel good and remind ourselves that our lives do matter in the greater scheme of things.

While there are ongoing debates about whether you need plot at all—with many literary authors focused on sentences, one brick after another—both Greer and Chabon are masters because they do so much to entertain us. Less is both a romantic comedy in the screwball golden-age-of-Hollywood tradition (think The Awful Truth) and an adventure novel about escape worthy of comparison to the French picaresque Around the World in Eighty Days. It could have been a book that cast the normal embarrassments of writing life as tragic or devastating, but instead, it flips all that in favor of a bigger, self-aware optimism about love. A similar yearning that is satisfying to read permeates Less’s sequel, Less Is Lost. All the spaces between things in the two Less books, the silences, the awkward conversations spent trying to fill them, prove to be comic gold, are tinged, like Chabon’s work, with a remembrance of—really, a romance with—things past.

You might think that a writing life spent entertaining and courting readers, sometimes getting what feel like unfair reviews or a lack of awards or getting told you’re not adequately representing your community, would cause even the most mild-tempered fiction writer to say, What in the ever-loving f—? Now, this, this is too much. I’d like less, please. Yet both Chabon and Greer have careers marked by extraordinary books that are like bright, arresting comets—literary novels that are also probably among the most entertaining you’ll read. The beauty of the style, and there is plenty of beauty, never takes precedence over the memorable characters, the enveloping atmosphere and sense of place, the narrative designs, the fun.

These novels are chock-full of pleasure—which means, of course, you’ll want more.•

Join us on Zoom on Thursday, February 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Greer will join Chabon and CBC host John Freeman 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.


andrew sean greer, less
chris hardy


In a personal essay, critic and National Book Critics Circle board member Heather Scott Partington considers the writer’s anxieties evoked in Less. —Alta

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California Book Club editor Anita Felicelli reviews Pulitzer Prize finalist Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel, I Have Some Questions for You, which centers on a protagonist who is a true-crime podcaster. Alta

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The Southern California–based literary magazine Air/Light is back with its seventh issue, the contents of which are released week by week. It features work by Michael Chang, E.J. Koh, and Danzy Senna. —Air/Light

california book club bookplates

Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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