Arthur Less is having a massive mid-life crisis. His last book proposal has been turned down, his boyfriend Freddy of eight years has dumped him only to announce he will marry his new beau instead. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the big five-O is lurking on the horizon. What to do? Escape seems the sensible option. Less by Andrew Sean Greer, which won the Pulitzer Prize last week, gets off to a bit of a slow start but picks up once Arthur hits the shores of Europe. A perfectly pitched comic portrayal of other cultures through the eyes of an American. I grew fond of anti-hero Arthur, his insecurities and fumbling efforts to rebuild his life. A heart-warming, funny and original read.
Our protagonist is a modestly successful author whose only real claim to fame is his long relationship with poet superstar Robert Brownburn. But that’s now in the past, as are most of Arthur’s achievements. Once the object of desire of many a gay man, Arthur’s looks are fading. He’s no longer ‘a promising’ author. Just like his name, Less is less of everything he once was. And perhaps that’s the way life goes, as one ‘friend’ suggests.
Arthur, I’ve got a theory. Now, hear me out. It’s that our lives are half comedy and half tragedy. And for some people it just works out that the first entire half for their lives is tragedy and the second half is comedy. Me, for example. Look at my shitty youth. […] But you. You had comedy in your youth.
Arthur embarks on a world tour which takes him to a minor literary festival in Mexico, where he’s been asked to speak (not about himself, but about living with Brownburn). He travels to Berlin to teach, in fumbling German, a university course, to Italy to attend a insignificant book award (which he’s been nominated for, courtesy of a brilliant translator ‘who [had] turned his mediocre English into breath taking Italian’). Following a whirlwind stop-over in Paris, he celebrates the birthday of a friend in the Moroccan desert, tries a writer’s retreat in India (which turns out to be something entirely different) and swings by Japan to write an article for a men’s magazine before returning to San Francisco.
I chuckled though this book. Greer nails the puzzling world of Berlin underground nightclubs, the sophisticated cool of bohemian dinner party in Paris and the over-helpful service at an Indian hostel. His writing is a real joy: playful, elegant and evocative as he puts a fresh spin on well-worn subject matters such as growing old, lost love and loneliness.
As a young author, Less receives some friendly advice from one of Robert Brownburn famous author friends. ‘Don’t win one of these prizes’ she says referring to the Pulitzer Prize. ‘You win a prize, and it’s all over. You lecture for the rest of your life. But you never write again’. Let’s hope this doesn’t turn out to be the case for Greer.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer is published by Little, Brown And Company, 261 pages.
If you like Andrew Sean Greer, you might also enjoy Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King.