Thursday, October 1, 2020

Book 253: Less


 "He kisses—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 use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you. There are some men who have never been kissed like that. There are some men who discover, after Arthur Less, that they never will be again."

Dates read: August 6-9, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize

Can we ever really run away from our problems? The conventional wisdom is no, and for the most part I agree with that. Many of our issues are rooted in our own patterns of behavior and a change of scenery does nothing to fix that. But there sometimes is utility in getting out of a toxic environment. Being outside of our ruts in our personal roads can help us see them more clearly. New experiences can refocus our attention on what we really value. And besides, sometimes even just a break from what ails us can give us the strength to push through.

In Andrew Sean Greer's Pulitzer Prize-winning Less, the titular Arthur Less, a writer, decides to take a trip around the world in the face of two upsetting events: his fiftieth birthday, and the marriage of his sort-of-boyfriend of nearly a decade, Freddy Pelu, to another man. Nothing seems to be going quite right for him: after an auspicious debut, his subsequent novels have declined in both sales and critical acclaim, and he worries that the closest he will come to genius were his years dating Robert Brownburn, an acclaimed poet, and being in Robert's circle of writer and artist friends. When an invite to Freddy's wedding arrives, Less can't bring himself to either accept and be the subject of pitying looks or decline and know he'll set the gossip wheels turning with speculation that he's bitter. So he decides to be absent, creating a trip around the world for himself by accepting invitations for various and sundry events that he'd shoved in a drawer and never intended to actually respond to.

Less begins by leaving San Francisco for New York, where his new novel is gently declined by his publisher. And then it's off to Mexico, then France, then Italy for a prize ceremony for a translation of his book, then Germany to teach a summer course, then a trip to Morocco with friends, then a retreat in India to work on his book, then Japan to write an article about food for a travel magazine, and finally back, having neatly avoided both his birthday and the wedding. Along the way he runs into an ex he doesn't recognize, has a fling with academic, gets a custom-made suit, steps on a needle, and has to destroy his way out of a room. We get perspective on the life he's led through both his own reminisces and the voice of a narrator, whose identity is finally revealed to us as Arthur Less gets home.

I'll admit I was a little skeptical when this was chosen as a selection for my book club. "Funny" books can land wildly differently depending on the reader, and "prize-winning funny" does not tend to be a type of humor I find especially enjoyable. But what a delight this book was! I've talked before about how much my experience of a book can be impacted by what else I've read in the same time frame, and after the self-serious, sometimes ponderous Shantaram, the breezy lightness of Less just hit the spot. But it's not just a fluffy book at all. It's filled with sharp observations and resonant character notes, and the propulsive forward motion of the journey keeps the plot moving at a nice clip. It never gets bogged down anywhere. And while managing all that, it also excels at blending the moments of humor with sweetly poignant emotional work.

Writing a funny-yet-grounded book is hard, y'all. So many things to be balanced, and the Pulitzer has to be at least in part a recognition of how very well Greer crafted his work. Why, after all this gushing, is this not an even-more-highly-rated book for me? Two things: it didn't linger in my mind (books that I rate 9 or 10 stars stick with me long after reading), and the narrator reveal. While I thought it was an emotionally satisfying way to end the book, it didn't make logical sense, which spoiled it ever so slightly. That being said, it's a wonderful book that I heartily enjoyed, with meditations on aging, love, dignity, and identity that run beneath the parts that make you laugh to make you think. I'd recommend it to everyone!

One year ago, I was reading: The Age of Miracles

Two years ago, I was reading: Flip

Three years ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Four years ago, I was reading: Sophie's Choice

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