Less by Andrew Sean Greer

My thought as I was halfway through reading Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less, was why the Melbourne Writers Festival team (i.e. Marieke and her off-sider, Gene) were so invested in the book (they were mad for it).

And then I discovered that there was so much more to Less.

It’s the story of Arthur Less, a mediocre novelist who is about to turn fifty (‘Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old’). When Less receives an invitation to ex-boyfriend Freddy’s wedding, he plans a round-the-world trip to avoid the nuptials. A string of speaking and teaching engagements takes him from New York and Mexico City, to Rome, Berlin, Paris, Morocco, India and Japan.

While snow glistens on Charlottenburg Palace, Freddy is standing beside Dennis in the California sun, for surely it is one of those white-linen-suit weddings, with a bower of white roses and pelicans flying by and somebody’s understanding college ex-girlfriend playing Joni Mitchell on guitar.

Less has various encounters in each of his destinations – shopping for clothes in Paris, mixing with a strange crowd in a Berlin nightclub, a sand storm in Morocco, dining out in Tokyo – what links these events is Less’s realisations about ageing and love, and for him, those two things are tangled. As his birthday looms and he reflects on his past relationships (one with a man much older and the fresh hurt of losing his young lover, Freddy) and struggles to reconcile his desire for the thrill of new love versus the security of a long-term relationship –

…the time when any couple has found its balance, and passion has quieted from its early scream, but gratitude is still abundant; what no one realizes are the golden years.

At the core of Less’s ruminations is the fear of being alone, or rather, lonely – But: how to live alone and yet no be alone? And it is the exploration of that fear that gives this book broad appeal (because as one of Less’s friends points out, who wants to read a book about white-middle-aged-male problems?).

Greer’s writing is lavish in parts (although difficult to quote without supplying great slabs of text) –

And when the plane lands at last – the windows revealing the vast night-time circuit board of Mexico City…

…Less was allowed an X-ray of his right foot (beautiful archipelago of bones)…

…the seventies, that era of quick love and Quaaludes (is there any more perfect spelling that with that lazy superfluous vowel?).

Descriptions of Less’s destination cities are outstanding – long paragraphs of eloquent observations, strung together to give you an exact and intimate picture of a place –

It is an autumn New York morning and therefore glorious; it is his first day of his long journey,…and his clothes are still clean and neat, socks still paired, blue suit unwrinkled, toothpaste still American and not some strange foreign flavor. Bright-lemon New York light flashing off the skyscrapers, onto the quilted aluminium sides of food carts, and from there onto Arthur Less himself.

The instructions for getting to the restaurant are as mysterious as a love note or an exchange of spies – Meet at the Moon Crossing Bridge – but his faith is fast; he takes the wheel of what basically feels like an enamelled toaster and follows the clear, perfect signs out of Kyoto…

This book is quietly humorous; not necessarily what you’d expect from a Pulitzer-winner; and excels because it gives fresh perspective on things that everyone has thought about at some stage – love, ageing and loneliness.

How can so many things become a bore by middle-age – philosophy, radicalism, and other fast foods – but heartbreak keeps its sting?

3.5/5 maybe even 4…

He is drinking Manhattan number two and it has done its job.

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