A mediocre life searching for love
I decided to read the novel, Less by Andrew Greer because it won a Pulitzer this year. “A generous book,” the Pulitzer Board said, “musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love.” I was also attracted to it because reviewers said it was funny. Christopher Buckley who has written some fine comedies himself (Thank You for Smoking, 1994) commented in The New York Times:
“Convulsed in laughter a few pages into Andrew Sean Greer’s fifth novel, Less, I wondered with regret why I wasn’t familiar with this author. My bad. His admirers have included John Updike, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers and John Irving. Less is the funniest, smartest and most humane novel I’ve read since Tom Rachman’s 2010 debut, The Imperfectionists.”
Less is funny, though I was never convulsed, but the primary word I would use to describe it is poignant. Greer uses wit to bring into sharp focus the disappointment of a man about to turn 50 who has never achieved success and who has never lacked for lovers but has never known love.
Arthur Less is a writer who has known writers of genius but is not one. “A minor author,” the novel’s narrator says, “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books.” After his lover of nine years leaves him to get married and invites him to the wedding, Less needs a way to skip the ceremony, to escape the humiliation of knowing the other wedding guests see him as the jilted loser. So he decides the only way out is to leave the country. He accepts a series of invitations to literary events—very minor literary events—that will take him to New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, and India. Some of the funniest moments come when translations fail, directions get confused, and accommodations are not what he expected.
In India Less discovers that instead of the writer’s retreat he intended to book he has instead reserved a cabin at a Christian camp.
“Here are the black ants; they are your neighbors. Nearby there is Elizabeth, the yellow rat snake, who is the parson’s special friend, although he says he is happy to kill her if you want him to. But then there will be rats. Do not be afraid of the mongoose. Do not encourage the stray dogs—they are not our pets. Do not open the windows, because small bats will want to visit you, and possibly monkeys. And if you walk at night, stomp on the ground to scare off other animals.”
Less asks what other animals could there possibly be?
Rupali answers, quite solemnly: “Let us never know.”
“Greer mercilessly skewers the insecurity of authors,” reviewer Patrick Gale writes in The Guardian, “as well as the vanity of the literary industry’s self-absorption in the face of its irrelevance to most people’s lives.” You don’t need to be a writer or gay, however, to identify with Less, for the poignancy that characterizes his life is a deeply human problem. How do we find meaning when our work is ordinary in a world where we meet people doing extraordinary things? How can we be satisfied being a minor player when even the major players are soon forgotten? And in a world of fragmented relationships can we find a love that will not leave with the morning light?
Less is a novel that reflects our 21st century world—its values and lifestyles, its fears and hopes. “With Less,” Lauren Sarazen says in Lambda Literary, “Greer engages with questions of aging, love, and success through a contemporary lens with both wit and keen sensitivity: How do I grow old? What is love? Have I felt it?” In other words, the same essential questions that humankind has always asked are raised in Less. Christians will need creativity if we are to tell the biblical story in a way that its answers to those questions can be appreciated.
So, read Less and chuckle and grieve and pray and reflect—all four, it seems to me, are a proper Christian response.