I did not know who Andrew Sean Greer was until I heard he’d won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction, and I continued to not know him and his sixth novel Less until I heard him read an excerpt in the New Yorker Radio Hour. That was it; I was sold. That short story was about Arthur Less, a nonfamous writer invited to Turin, Italy, by a minor literary prize, and it ran from one hilarious moment to the next. Greer is one of these incredibly blessed people who just write funny. Like how he describes the airplane lunch: “Tuscan chicken (whose ravishing name reveals itself, like an internet lover, to be mere chicken and mashed potatoes)”.
There are two things about Less that bear mentioning on a craft level (because they are absolutely crafty in the best sense of the word):
1) Greer sprinkles flashbacks judiciously throughout this novel, and he’s quite deft in the way he sneaks them in. Example: in the last chapter, there’s this part: “…he sees a few people waiting on the dock, and among them — he recognizes her through her clear umbrella — is his mother.” It’s not his mother, of course; rather, it’s a woman who is wearing a very similar scarf. But this moment of misrecognition gives the reader the perfect way into this memory.
2) This novel is narrated by an unnamed character, one who acts in an omniscient manner about 95% of the time, but then there are these startling confessional first-person moments. It’s so smart — Greer gets to have his cake and eat it, too, because he has the flexibility to play god and go wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and yet he also preserves the closeness of the first-person narrator when he wants to deliver an extra helping of heart.
This is just a wonderful novel, gentle and loving and funny and sad. Unlike many literary novels, things actually happen in this book, lots of things, tons of things. It is, after all, a travelogue of sorts, with Less jumping from country to country, continent to continent, to avoid his former lover’s wedding and his impending 50th birthday, so there’s serious propulsion in the narrative.
The writer Greer reminded me most was another favorite of mine, Brian Morton. Fans of Starting Out in the Evening or A Window Across the River will find a great friend in Less. I can’t wait to read the rest of Greer’s fiction.