Arthur Less is a nearly 50-year-old gay man and former partner of a Pulitzer prize-winning writer who travels the world to forget a past lover and avoid having to go to his wedding. Such is the story of Andrew Sean Greer’s 2018 Pulitzer prize-winning novel Less.
A middle-aged writer who had (barely) attained his 15 minutes of fame in his younger years with his gay take on Homer’s The Odyssey, Less accepts various speaking and teaching invitations around to world to forget his past and try to find his purpose in life.
Less starts his journey by accepting a speaking engagement in Mexico City about the prestigious members of the Russian River School of writers and artists, specifically his former lover and Pulitzer prize-winning writer, Robert Brownburn. From Mexico City, he flies to Turin, Italy, where his one slightly popular novel is being considered for a prize by a local high school. From Italy, Less travels to Berlin, Germany, where he teaches a course “of his choosing,” for five months. After his brief teaching stint at Berlin, Less spends a day in Paris before flying to Morocco to join a tour crossing the Sahara and to celebrate his 50th birthday in the company of friends. His penultimate stop is India, where he expects to stay in an ayurveda retreat to find solace and finish his new novel. Finally, from India, Less flies to Kyoto, Japan to do a piece on kaiseki for an in-flight magazine.
The story is pretty straightforward, with Less moving from one city to another, meeting insignificant characters along the way. His travels are not without incidents that are sometimes strange, funny, or unbelievable for an almost 50-year old man. Though about to celebrate his 50th birthday, Less’ maturity is not well reflected in the novel, and his insecurities and naivety seem better matched to a man in his 20s.
I am surprised that this novel won a Pulitzer prize. Although well written, it lacks strong or controversial themes or messages or earthshaking twists and turns. It has been likened to the 2006 novel by Elizabeth Gilbert Eat Pray Love. I have not read Eat Pray Love, but I think it Less is compared with it because it’s about a white man with his white first-world problems traveling the world to seek enlightenment…or in Less’s case, to forget the love of his life.
I enjoyed this novel to a certain extent, but I think I would have liked it more had it not been a Pulizter prize-winning novel. In that sense, it’s a bit disappointing, especially, with its sentimental and cushy ending.
Less (2017) – Andrew Sean Greer
Back Bay Books; 261 pages (tpb)
Personal rating: 2.5/5