a bookclique pick by Laura Dickerman
It’s hard to think of a really successful, contemporary literary comedy – a book that makes you laugh out loud but is also replete with complex characters and empathetic insight. And of course, as Shakespeare himself ordained it, a comedy must wind its way towards an inevitable love match.
Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, sends its protagonist, the hapless and endearing Arthur Less, a writer hoping to recapture his past modest success, on a quixotic journey around the world in order to avoid the impending wedding of his not-quite-serious boyfriend of nine years. Arthur cobbles together his world tour by accepting invitations to literary events including a teaching gig, a prize ceremony, a writer-in-residency, and an ill-fated review of Japanese cuisine.
Whether “celebrating” his 50th birthday on a camel in a Moroccan sandstorm, dangling from the windowsill of a locked Berlin apartment, or trying to write while raucous church-goers picnic below his room overlooking the Arabian Sea, Arthur muddles his way through various absurd adventures. There are also unapologetically joyful romantic encounters – a besotted young Bavarian, a handsome Spaniard on a Parisian balcony – woven through with Arthur’s memories of his first love, a famous older poet, and his last love, the charming young man whose wedding to someone else has precipitated Arthur’s flight. The book’s gentle probing of fame, creativity, and love is what gives it the depth and poignancy that are often absent from comedies.
Rumination on mortality underlies the comic mishaps as we become more attached to Arthur, more delighted by his befuddled innocence, and more convinced that he is a much better writer than expected; that he is, in fact, about to write a novel very similar to the one we are reading. Trenchant satire at the expense of literary pretentiousness is one of the book’s charms, as is the mysterious, wry narrator who slowly reveals himself to be anything but dispassionate:
“Less knows well the pleasures of youth – danger, excitement, losing oneself in a dark club with a pill, a shot, a stranger’s mouth – and with Robert and his friends, the pleasures of age – comfort and ease, beauty and taste, old friends and old stories and wine, whiskey, sunsets over the water. His entire life, he has alternated between the two…The city of youth, the country of age. But in between, where Less is living – that exurban existence? How has he never learned to live it?”
Greer’s writing is lyrical and deft, and Arthur’s literal, professional, and emotional coming of age evokes laughter and tears. Who could ask for anything more?