Charm in literature is as misunderstood as breezes in wetlands. Those of us in the hot zone know that a breeze is more than just air moving. It’s the small magic that separates you from lethargy, from the heaviness and dread of living. And so it goes with fiction. Without charm, there can be no dream, no intimacy, no pleasure. It shouldn’t be an insult, then, to use the word in a description: as in, full of charm but not substance. To charm someone, after all, is to reach them, to seduce them, as if by magic.
From the beginning of his publishing life, nearly 25 years ago, Andrew Sean Greer has been an immensely charming storyteller. He writes like someone who enjoys it, and his books have always tilted hopefully toward love. One by one, his novels fling characters into the emotion’s gravity field and then care for them in their falling. The mood mist made by this cosmic attitude about the heart affects everything, especially his sense of time. “Youth is a tender terror,” Greer writes in an early story, his narrator impatient to shrug it off: to get to where the hurting stops.
But of course, the hurt never does. It simply changes, something the hero of Greer’s sixth book, Less, knows all too well. A middling writer about to turn 50, Arthur Less has decided to take a trip around the world. He hopes to avoid the marriage of his ex-lover and perhaps drink some champagne. He doesn’t want to give up on love. He just doesn’t need his nose rubbed in it. Plus, he hopes to run away from another rejection: that of his latest novel.
What could have been a Merchant Ivory production on the page is instead a tender riot. The tone is the key. Told by an offstage narrator, whose identity is not revealed until the book’s conclusion, Less begins and we are immediately enveloped by a velvety-voiced chum. Someone insinuating but not mean. “From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad,” the voice utters, slyly. “Look at him,” and thus we meet Arthur.
The story-within-a-story mode, so well polished by Balzac and Chekhov, was literature’s first camera lens. Here is the frame, it said, and, drawing closer, here’s a person within it. When practiced well, as Greer does here, you gradually forget the frame, and the person being portrayed overtakes you, becomes you—or you him. Of course there are few little fates less sad than that of a white middle-age man—even if he’s gay, as a woman in the book points out to Arthur himself, no less. But bit by bit, slight by slight, we meet Arthur and come to inhabit his body, with all its aches and pangs.
What draws us in is Arthur’s at-first-not-obvious vulnerability. In Greer’s handling—a sequel has recently come out and is great fun, too—Arthur is a fool, one of so many men lured to the West Coast knowing practically nothing. So terrified by sex (he arrives in San Francisco in the midst of the worst years of the AIDS pandemic), he winds up bad at it, falling for the revered—and married—poet of the Russian River School, Robert Brownburn; becoming his lover, and then companion for many years; and thus serving as a handmaiden to his genius.
“What was it like to live with genius,” Arthur is asked at an event once his trip has begun—and thinks back. “Like living alone. Like living alone with a tiger. Everything had to be sacrificed for the work…. For at the beginning, one never knew what he was writing about. Was it you?”
Brownburn teaches Arthur many minor lessons and one major one: that he is not a genius. Or so Arthur thinks. Eclipsed and nurtured and made self-conscious by this almost decades-long love affair, which he palate-cleanses with a nine-year romance with a younger man, Arthur has washed up in middle age prematurely young, having never really experienced the flower of his own youth. But he is not ready to be old. Unlike a previous generation of gay men, many of whom didn’t expect to live to be middle-aged, Arthur also clearly hasn’t had a model for how to be 50.
Ironically, perceptively, Less sets out to correct this missing piece of training, as if part of the long tradition (which began with the Victorians) of novels as primers for behavior. From the get-go, Less eschews some of the sobriquets that have been lobbed at Arthur himself as a writer, “a bad gay,” as another gay novelist tells him, for making his characters sad, morose, and doomed to suffer. True, the novel begins in tragic mode, but it very quickly becomes a happy picaresque.
What an enviable journey! From San Francisco to Mexico to Turin to Berlin and onward to Kyoto, Arthur barnstorms from one conference and prize ceremony and teaching gig to the next, quaffing local drinks, meeting the local writers, falling gratefully into one hotel room after the other, all deftly described by Greer. During the period that Greer wrote and published Less, he was working at the retreat of the beloved salon keeper Beatrice Monti della Corte Rezzori, the Baronessa, as she is known, and he describes the peculiarly 21st-century manner of literary hosting with exquisite accuracy.
There’s a laser-sharp satire here of our modern literary world, which in the past couple of decades has domesticated novelists into accoutrements of luxury, dragging them blinking and confused like posh Pnins into the light of one international festival after another. Encumbered by an unadmitted monolingualism, Arthur is as comically adrift in this milieu with his tongue as Nabokov’s errant professor is. “I am fear of the old, I am fear of the lonely,” he blurts out in German at one point.
Gradually, the existential dilemma hiding behind Arthur’s itinerary begins to loom in the foreground. It’s as if the globe’s horizon and his own were setting together. And Arthur is desperate to hang on to something other than youth: he wants to clasp on to a hard-won sense of how to be. “Strange to be almost fifty, no?” a handsome man tells Arthur while the writer is on a layover in Paris. “I feel like I just understood how to be young.”
“Yes!” Arthur replies. “It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”
This exchange is so typical of Less, in which Arthur’s gargantuan journey proceeds at a madcap pace, its darts of mortal seriousness disguised as punch lines. Around the world we go, buffeted by champagne, maladroit translations, and a proliferation of travel sickness. “This isn’t a birthday,” Arthur yells at one companion when another traveler in his group is felled by stomach upset in Morocco. “It’s an Agatha Christie novel!”
Arthur protests, but this, in fact, is precisely what he signed up for when his ex-lover’s wedding invitation arrived in the mail. Not a gay Eat, Pray, Love but something to mix up the routine of life before he settles into the routine of getting old and, like Brownburn, who remains mostly offstage, dying. Saying yes to a backlog of what he imagined were throwaway invitations draws Arthur out into the world, where, outside the hothouse of American literary reputations, he realizes what he already is, what he has been for some time now. A decent man, a fool, a lover, a traveler, a writer of books people actually read. A happy ending in a literary novel? How in the world did we forget we needed such crucial breezes?•
Join us on Zoom on Thursday, February 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Greer will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Michael Chabon 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.