Book Review: Less

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (2018). Sydney: Hachette.

CW: plot spoilers and nerd talk (you’ve been warned).

Less was a pleasurable read. So pleasurable, in fact, that it’s hard to be critical about it without descending into mad rambling… which is what I’m about to do (I’m not sorry). Greer’s character development was straight-to-the-point, using caricatures and clichés to illustrate who these people are. His scene description was illuminating, if not a little tedious on the odd occasion. And the overall narrative was a jumble of foreshadowing and analepsis that… actually worked well for me once I got to the end. It was surprisingly easy to navigate despite being that jumble, with such strong references to media making it accessible to any reader. And above all, it had a satisfying ending.

Fletcher: ‘Hello this is a small review of Less as I hit the halfway point. I’m enjoying it, but it’s very, uhhh, literary fiction. More than queer fiction.’
Me: ‘I mean, lit fic is “where queer texts go to die”. Do you mean it’s not the type of queer text you enjoy reading?’
Fletcher: ‘Mah not necessarily. But it’s definitely very lit fic. It has that lit fic way of getting lost in a sentence a little: meandering and pondering without a great deal happening.’
Me: ‘So enjoying it or not enjoying it? I have it on my shelf, but this isn’t leaving me clawing for it.’
Fletcher: ‘It’s good, but I’m going through it at a leisurely pace. It doesn’t demand my attention. tbh I’m looking forward to finishing it so I can find something to devour.’

So. Gagging once I picked it up, which I only did so I could talk to someone about a book we’d both read. Greer wrote us a self-referencing comedy of errors that draws our understanding of -things- right into the narrative. Like a roadrunner coaxing a coyote into the path of an oncoming road train. In the first scene alone there were tropes drawn from radio plays, literature, cinema, and theatre, with no cliché left to fester like they usually would. Their dismantling, and how they came to strip Arthur Less of his identity, became the comedy. There were digs at the publishing industry, too, as well as writing and writers, and even reading culture that goes too far (or not far enough). I found it hilarious from the start.

Me: ‘You know, I’m actually enjoying Less.’
Fletcher: ‘Me too. It’s grown on me.’
Me: ‘It’s Wes Anderson meets Neil Gaiman.’
Fletcher: ‘Oh that’s a great way of putting it.’
Me: ‘Yeah? You’re getting it too? Lonely old dudd in very nice suit, petite but loud manager, old rival with attractive nephew, taking anyone who’ll hire him? Everyone’s a caricature.’

I had a strong feeling Greer had a secret love for French cinema, for in that first chapter we had the bare beginnings of a Wes Anderson movie. It was the classical brownness of the scene, with its one vibrantly-coloured character (Less) walking through it as an outsider who should be in. From the broken clock to its obedient watcher, to the small, brown plaid woman pacing the same lobby for an hour looking for the wrong person (she thinks ‘Mister’ Less is a ‘Miss’), to the old dudd genre writer with the odd name throwing up into a bucket: its stiff characters performed like marionettes in a shoebox theatre. And the small things were ridiculous — only there by some freak chance or divine fate, or a complete break-down of communication. That chance and fate, like a Dadaist who dabbles in German Romanticism on the weekend, pulling the novel into its divine comedy.

Me: ‘I think I’m in love with this book, btw. My housemates keep asking what’s so funny.’
Fletcher: ‘It IS funny, right??? Very self-aware.’
Me: (quoting) ‘“Arthur. He’s just calling you a faggot.” And the bit about everything being closed in Mexico: even the volcano. Thank you for inspiring this read.’
Fletcher: ‘Always happy to recommend books.’

Greer’s early references to Homer’s Odyssey direct these clichés and comedies into a narrative about love and self-discovery — with regular references to Less’s first novel (and only success in life) as a queering of the text itself, and Greer’s further references to Joyce’s Ulysses baring strong parallels with how Less is being moved beyond the stagnation of his life. Like Odysseus, Less is essentially stripped of himself through his journey, having to confront his fears and hopes as Odysseus did while trying to negotiate with those of others. And like Bloom, losing the material things he believes to surmise his identity becomes an essential part of that journey. What the negative reviewers on Goodreads failed to figure out, however, is that this intertextual shadow means Less will return to what he needs rather than find it along the way. Pay attention, heteros: this is how The Classic Gays™ like to do things.

Me: ‘He’s just realised he’s in love with Freddy as he wins the Italian Prize… and I’m a wet mess.’
Fletcher: ‘This is a good book, right? I’m one chapter from the end.’
Me: (later) ‘Gosh. And what an end. I’m snotty like a five-year-old.’
Fletcher: ‘Yes I finished on waking. Good book. Good ending. V satisfying.’

There were further journeys Less had to look back on, of course, such as his reading of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. He laments that it was cut short by an extensive commentary by the editor, and after the six years it took him to finish it (which nobody does, trust me), Less feels somehow chained to the person he is. Time, however, moves him against his will to the one thing he doesn’t know he needs, past the monstrous caricatures his journey forces him to confront, stripping Less of the person he doesn’t want to be anymore. He’s powerless to fight against Time, but eventually it takes him, like Odysseus, to where he belongs.

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