How amiable and witty this is, its wit as dry as the clicking of a clock. Insert joke here: Blank is easy; comedy is hard. One may be able to quickly compile a list of great books, but great comedic books would take more time. Wodehouse, yes. Russo's Straight Man, yes. Peter De Vries, yes. Heller's Catch-22, of course. Sterne's Tristram Shandy, definitely yes. Add Andrew Sean Greer's newest novel, Less, to this august group. I love funny; it's a rare commodity, even in the works of our best writers.
Furthermore, I love novels about writers — John Updike's Bech books, Anthony Burgess' Enderby series, Philip Roth's Zuckerman novels, Powell's monumental A Dance to the Music of Time — so this little tale hits me right in the heart.
Of the aforementioned, this slim, delightful novel feels most like one of Updike's Bech books, its gay, peripatetic novelist-hero, Arthur Less globe-hopping for months to escape having to attend an ex-lover's wedding. There is much humorous expatiation about airports and planes, escorts and awards, foreigners and fans. And the self-deprecating Less is at his best describing his feeling of outsiderness wherever he goes and whomever he goes with. It is said that most writers feel a fraud, especially around other writers, and Less has this malady in spades. "What does one ever ask an author except: 'How?' And the answer, as Less knows, is obvious: 'Beats me'!"
From Mexico to Italy to Germany to France to Morocco he goes, here a reading, here a literary prize, here a trip by camel, and as Arthur Less travels in space he correspondingly travels in time, each stop initiating memories, good and bad, of love and lust, won and lost. He's also approaching 50, a milestone he dreads like the Day of Doom's tick. He thinks he will die alone. He thinks he is un-mateable, like a wild animal in captivity. And he is fighting becoming a bitter, cynical, oldish man. He thinks, "Sicilians talk about being struck by lightning. We know there's no love of your life. Love isn't terrifying like that. It's walking the fucking dog so the other can sleep in, it's doing taxes, it's cleaning the bathroom without hard feelings. It's having an ally in life. It's not fire, it's not lightning."
Arthur Less feels the way many writers feel about being a public person as a "reward" for writing novels. His readings are sparsely attended. His assignments, one after another, seem designed only to make him feel ridiculous, rather than celebrated. "How has it come to this? What god has enough free time to arrange this very special humiliation, to fly a minor novelist across the world so that he can feel, in some seventh sense, the minusculitude of his own worth?" And, like many writers, Arthur is trapped inside his own head. He overthinks everything. "The brain is so wrong, all the time ... Wrong about what time it is, and who people are, and where home is: wrong wrong wrong. The lying brain."
Following Arthur around the world is like living inside his Jiffy Pop brain. He is droll and affable, while inside he seethes with self-hatred, self-doubt, and a desire to know what it's all about. Is 50 really such a liminal signpost that he keeps moving across international time lines to avoid what catches us all up eventually? We age. If age is only loss, how much less life can Less tolerate? His name is well chosen, of course, symbolic, ironic, useful in many of the book's best jokes.
Along the way the reader will learn much about the writing life and about gay life and about capital "L" Life. The book's first line, spoken by a narrator who remains hidden until it's time for the big reveal, is "From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad." So, reader, is it? Is Arthur's life better than he thinks it is? It's an instructive way to read Arthur Less's chronicle, and, I won't be spoiling anything by saying, the trip is worth it. Greer is as entertaining as a riddle and as funny as a flood in a Fizzies factory. Oh, plus you learn the correct way to pronounce "Pulitzer."