I’ve previously read two Pulitzer Prize winners- Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. So it’s hard not to have certain expectations from Less. It stands out from the previous Pulitzer Prize winners I’ve read in that it is a funny book. I did not expect laugh out loud moments but I’m sure glad that I got them in a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Reading Less was a lot like hanging out with (mostly) middle age gay men- which was a welcome change from my regular fare of fiction centred around younger (mostly) heterosexual people. Overall I liked Less a lot, I just didn’t love it. I loved it in parts here and there, but taken in its entirety I just liked it a lot. It is growing on me, and I’ll confess this- Arthur Less has occupied a little corner in my mind and he refuses to leave for now.
The ending is fantastic and exactly what was needed. Because by that point in the novel Greer had me rooting for our unlikable, privileged, flawed, middle-aged, gay author Arthur Less. As unfortunate events befall him one after another he goes on rolling with the punches. This book is a meditation on love, lust and loss. Greer examines two profound inexorable core experiences of the human condition- heartache and the passage of time. And he does so with a comic, witty, and warm narrator.
One particularly appealing aspect of the book is the enigmatic narrator who is unveiled towards the end and who takes the liberty to move back and forth through time a bit too freely. Although a bit frustrating to begin with I got used to the narrator’s dry sense of humour and tendency to furnish superfluous details that made me wonder where this was going and yet there are times where these descriptions are touching and clever. In hindsight, despite the back and forth nature of the storytelling we end up with this elaborate portrait of Arthur Less without realizing it. And I suspect a chronological storytelling wouldn’t have achieved the same effect.
Honestly, the narrative of a white queer man travelling the world to skip town because his ex-lover is getting married and to escape the impending doom and gloom of turning fifty has the blandness of the Eat Pray Love archetype. To empathize with the protagonist in the first world dealing with his first world misfortunes can seem like asking a lot. This is the same problem with the protagonist of the book that our protagonist- Arthur Less- is writing. Maybe Arthur Less is a reflection of Greer. Maybe Greer anticipated the lack of sympathy his privileged and flawed protagonist would invoke, and he did it anyway. And the outcome is poignant, witty and just lovely.
Here are some of my highlights
- “Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.” “Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”
- “Just for the record: happiness is not bullshit.”
- “How can so many things become a bore by middle age — philosophy, radicalism, and other fast foods — but heartbreak keeps its sting?”
- “So many people will do. But once you’ve actually been in love, you can’t live with “will do”; it’s worse than living with yourself.”
- “what do I want from life?” And I say: “Less!”