No book exists in a vacuum, even if you try to pick your reading schedule relatively blindly. It is hard to pick up Less now without knowing that it won the Pulitzer this year – even if you had meant to read it before you knew that it was in the running. The knowledge of a win hangs over a book: it bolsters sales and raises awareness, but it also raises expectations, and allows the dreaded word “overrated” to be floated.
Andrew Sean Greer’s Less won a Pulitzer. If it hadn’t, it would still be a good novel, but you can see how some of its preoccupations might have attracted the attention of an awards committee.
Blocked author Arthur Less reacts to the news of a former flame’s engagement by accepting invitations to every event in his in-tray so that he can have an excuse for skipping the wedding. Less travels the world and revels in experiences that he never would have been subjected to otherwise.
Just as cinephiles tend to have soft spots for movies about movie making, bibliophiles often like books about books, about writers, about reading. There’s a certain affinity that people have for the creative process, even if they’ve never tapped into that wellspring themselves. This easy accessibility has a double-edge, as it’s just as easy to fall into the trap of self-indulgence as it is to tell a meaningful story. Greer layers his author’s tale with explicit reference to the Pulitzer itself – Less’ first great love won the award for poetry – and offers a giddy degree of additional meta commentary throughout.
A character questions the content of the novel that Less is stuck on, and here Greer comments on his own text:
“A white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows … it’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”
Greer presents this character quintessentially, but with an important difference: Less is partly characterised by a malaise, but any self-pity loses traction in favour of bumbling and a tone that is not excessively serious. Less also possesses a thick enough skin to withstand all of the misfortunes and mild criticisms he attracts.
Less’ adventures are related to the reader via an unidentified narrator who knows the man, one who understands his intricacies without being the omniscient Greer. There is a genuine affection for the character despite his many foibles. Less is flawed, but in charming and relatable ways rather than loathsome ones; the sort of man you’d feel for despite thinking that his life is probably somewhat better than he suspects.
Despite the words of Less’ critic, the gay literary novel isn’t as common as one might suspect. There’s an authenticity to Greer’s writing that renders his characters multi-dimensional, and makes Less’ contradictory desires and actions make perfect sense. This is a well-realised novel, and both Less and his narrator – shadowy though he may be – feel like people. Greer’s first hand understanding of the multiple permutations of homosexual relationships allows for a rich history to unfold across multiple decades and characters, contributing to a more than worthy novel. Even gay. It helps that Greer has an exquisite turn of phrase that displays a sincere concern for the welfare of the people that he has decided to study.
Less is such an intense character study that you may have noticed that this review has barely touched on the travel elements at all. Each chapter covers one stop on Less’ journey: self-contained vignettes that don’t feel episodic. There’s a genuine sense of progress, and Less figuratively and literally is in a different place to the one he found himself in at the beginning of his adventure.
So yes: Less won the Pulitzer. An often delightful work, it would have received an effusive review from these quarters even had it not garnered the attention of any establishment. Greer is already an accomplished author, but getting the official carte blanche to follow a work like Less up with whatever the hell you want is a priceless gift, and one that readers will reap the most rewards from.