Book Review: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Self-reflection has long been a noble pursuit. In Plato’s Apology, his recollections of the speech Socrates delivered at his trial in Athens, Socrates laments that “the unexamined life is not worth living." [1]

          Today, one can find myriad methods for self-reflection. Books abound on best practices for living and so-called “life hacks,” on expert and professional encouragements, and on methods for coping with the day-to-day like meditation dominate bestsellers lists. More important than these modern genres are literary works about human life and the emotions and predicaments encountered throughout it. Andrew Sean Greer’s latest novel, Less, is a glorious inquiry into what it means to live and love. Novels like Less enlarge our capacity for empathy, add to our common vocabulary of emotion, and, ultimately, encourage readers to reflect upon their own lives.

          In Greer’s novel, readers are greeted with a glum and pitiful portrait: that of Arthur Less, a minor novelist going through the motions of living “slowly, sadly, with growing acceptance of the divine comedy of his life,” who is—dear god—just shy of 50 (214). Having just discovered that his former lover, Freddy, whose father is either a nemesis or a caring critic, is engaged to another man, Arthur is lonesome, lamenting his inadequacy at the beginning of the novel. At its end, Arthur is awash in newfound knowledge of his life, his loves, his privilege, and his modest place on planet Earth. Between those two points unfolds a story that is undoubtedly well-known by most readers: a story of the melancholia and doldrums that follow the loss of profound love, of self-discovery at the nadir of despair, and some form of redemption at the end of it all.

          Before Less, Greer’s greatest literary achievement was his unique historical fiction, an ingenious and accessible kind of writing best expressed in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells and The Confessions of Max Tivoli. Less, however, is something else entirely. Greer’s is a novel so human that, before half of its pages are turned, the protagonist appears in them as someone familiar—a man we just might know. It’s a literary achievement that manages to critique the literati’s self-regard and point out their privilege. Indeed, at the backend of the book, Arthur describes his new novel, whose protagonist is a gay, white, and male author caught in the whirl of a mid-life crisis, only to have it rejected by his publisher and shot down as unrelatable and uninteresting by one of his lesbian friends traveling with him. Greer, of course, is implicated in this meta and grandiose plot maneuver—his novel, Less, is about just those things shot down in the novel itself. Some reader may get hung up on the parallels between Greer and Less. At times, they feel cuter than they are clever, more kitsch than critical to the plot. But Greer’s tendency toward metafiction is only drapery; however one likes or dislikes it, it isn’t the point. Obsess over it and you’ll miss the flowers on the dining room table. Less is not merely an exploration of a middle-aged gay man’s career and life, it is at once a meditation on the good life, love, friendship, and wisdom.

… … … … …

“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad,” reads an observation from the narrator at the outset of the novel (3). Yet Arthur, trapped in the mind’s cave where self-perceived failures and faults are found, cannot see himself as others do. In his twenties, a poet told Less “You’re like a person without skin”; Freddy’s father, Carlos, once claimed that “You need to get an edge” (6). Inwardly confused and malcontented, perennially bothered by his perceived shortcomings, Arthur’s attitude is best captured in his response to a tourist who, “hearing he is a writer, grows excited and asks who he is.” Less’s response: “Nobody” (42). He “knows life’s commedia dell’arte and how he has been cast” (83). When participating in an award ceremony in Italy, an award for which Arthur was nominated and which he would win, he thinks to himself, “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?” (96).

Carlos, the father of Less’s lost lover, Freddy, offers a theory of life in the final pages of the novel. His theory is that “our lives are half comedy and half tragedy” (223). Less, he argues, has “the luck of a comedian. Bad luck in things that don’t matter. Good luck in things that do. [...] You are the most absurd person I’ve ever met [...] and you’ve won. And you don’t even realize it” (226). Responding to Carlos, Less is interrupted: “You have the best life of anyone I know” (223).

          Most of us, like Arthur Less, who has only “a gentle sense of himself, akin to the transparent carapace of a soft-shelled crab,” are confused about ourselves and our place in the world (6). Such confusion makes the course of love, the process of picking and choosing partners, husbands, and wives, all the more difficult. Central to Greer’s novel is the course of love in Arthur Less’s life. We all of us know firsthand or are at least familiar with the joy of coming to know and cherish another person, the titillation and terror of a friend’s slow orbit around the heart turned into a rush of romance, the nerve-wracking sense of balance we aspire to when reconciling our self-display and desire to speed things up or slow them down. Though Arthur Less, readers might consciously recognize what most of them tacitly know: The course of love is ultimately inimitable, entirely unique to the web of reminiscences and relationships that constitute a life.

Less is remarkable for many reasons, but chief among them is that Greer manages to articulate one of the most difficult aspects of modern life: mediating the tension between romantic expectation and reality. While traveling through the Moroccan desert, Less encounters Zohra, a similarly middle-aged woman also reeling from romantic turmoil. Zohra rejects the notion of ideal partners, the ‘love of a life’ model so present modern American culture. “Love isn’t terrifying like that. It’s walking the fucking dog so the other one can sleep in, it’s going taxes, it’s cleaning the bathroom without hard feelings. It’s having an ally in life” (188). Practicality, however, is not always the preeminent criterion on the minds of those searching for love.

Upon running into an ex, Howard, “the history professor at UC-Davis who would drive two hours to take Less to the theatre,” Arthur remembers how he used to think, “He is a good companion, here is a good choice” (14). Then he remembers that their fling ended because “the sex was too awkward, too specific”—so much so that instructions were involved. As with any partner, there are pluses and minuses. Finding the balance between ideal and acceptable partners is the true challenge, for no ‘ideal’ partner really exists. The damage one does to others, oneself, or that which is caused by someone else in finding that balance can lead one to believe that “the heart is a capricious thing” (28).

          Yet, as Arthur expresses, “once you’ve actually been in love, you can’t live with ‘will do’; it’s worse than living with yourself” (15). Arthur himself, the narrator insists that he ought to be “trusted to report,” “is—technically—not a skilled lover” (113). On occasion, he is “too eager in the sexual act, sometimes not eager enough” (113). Nevertheless, he kisses as you can imagine “someone in love” would, with a sense of immediacy, presence, as if there was “Only now, only you” (113).

… … … … …

Upon discovering Freddy’s engagement, Arthur accepts months’ worth of writing-related invitations and in so doing arranges a series of trips across the world that make up the; Arthur’s travels from New York to Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, Japan, and India constitute the novel’s structure. In India for a writing retreat, Arthur Less launches himself into a new novel, the story of Swift—a man who, with “joy bordering on sadism, [...] degloves every humiliation to show its risible lining” (219). The author thinks “What sport! If only one could do this with life!” (219). This can, in fact, be done in life. While in India writing his novel, Arthur finds peace with his self-doubt, he crawls out from that cave in the mind.

Less’s life is evolving, growing in directions neither he nor the reader can fully comprehend. The reader, however, has the distinct advantage of following Less to its end; Less the protagonist, regardless of his resemblance to the novel’s author or the reader, exists only within paperbound ink. Yet Less is a work of genius precisely because it pulls readers into its pages. Greer’s novel progresses not with the sense of page-to-page development, but with the authenticity of human whims and woes. Were it not for the boundedness and finality of ink on the written page, one could imagine Arthur Less leaping from the page to take human form.

          Arthur Less, fictional as he may be, is a composite of common human concerns. His life is a reflection of human lives. Our frets about individual importance in the world, however fleeting it may be, our fears of daring to love another person, or daring to let go, and our idiosyncratic, often incomprehensible, methods for making sense of the ‘divine comedy’ of life are all encapsulated in Arthur Less, a blonde, middle-aged man of many experiences and mediocre talents. With the help of literature like Greer’s Less, we can work our way through that comedy and find fulfilling lives. In the closing sentence of one chapter, the narrator reminds readers “Just for the record” that “happiness is not bullshit” (195). Less serves as a reminder of that fact.



[1] Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966.

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