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  • Ninay Desai

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is named after its protagonist, Arthur Less. Arthur is an unremarkable writer in his late forties who decides to travel around the world in order to avoid his ex-boyfriend's wedding. This tour across Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India and Japan with pit stops in New York and Paris is solely aimed at sparing him the misery of attending the event while side-stepping the embarrassment of declining the invitation. This hastily cobbled-up trip allows him to RSVP with a credible excuse - that he’ll be out of the country. Having accepted all manner of invitations to half-baked literary events and teaching engagements, the junket won’t cost Less any money – that’s another point in its favour.

A copy of Less by Andrew Sean Greer on a wooden table in a cafe. Next to the book are placed a couple of desserts. Photo by Ninay Desai.

That’s the general plot but what this book is really about is love, aging, self-image, nostalgia and the resilience of the human heart. To me, this novel has two highlights. One, the delightfully satirical but unexpectedly endearing narration of Less’ travels. The narrator is Arthur’s ex-boyfriend of nine years, Freddy and thus, is privy to Arthur’s past and idiosyncrasies. It begins with the kind of gentle leg-pulling expected of old friends and progresses to revealing insights into Less’ character with great tenderness and adoration.

Highlight number two is Arthur Less himself. Less, who values himself so little and yet, as the novel goes on, we see what sets him apart from the rest even as he fails to suspect a thing. It's a truism that we like characters for their strengths (of which Less has several— including generosity, absence of rancour and seeing the best in people) but love them for their failings. I loved Arthur Less for his self-consciousness, his self-doubt, his total lack of chutzpah and his severely-misplaced confidence in his tenuous hold over the German language. Greer writes,

“The letter is in German; the university is under the impression Arthur Less is fluent in German, and Arthur Less’s publisher, who recommended him, is also under this impression. So is Arthur Less. With God’s happiness, he writes back, I accept the pedestal of power, and sends it off with a flush of pleasure.”

This, in response to an offer from a university in Berlin to teach a five-week-long course. In German!

Not given to grandiose gestures, long speeches or outrageous vacations, this trip is an adventure for Less—travelling around the world and to the depths of his own heart to figure out who he is now and what he wants. Sometimes, one needs to travel a bit to figure out who or what is home and find your way back.

Somewhere between the lines of Less, Andrew Sean Greer explores imposter syndrome. Arthur Less believes that everyone else knows what they’re doing while he fumbles his way through, play-acting in a world that is all-too-real. He minimises his own talent and achievements because he believes that he has been in the presence of true literary greatness and is convinced that he doesn't have it.

Another recurring theme in the novel is misunderstandings caused by missed chances, miscommunication and unexpressed feelings. It reminded me of the philosopher poet, Khalil Gibran’s immortal lines,

“Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most of love is lost.”

Greer picks a less than heroic protagonist, imbues him with such specificity, you can almost imagine him in his blue suit, tumbling his way through this rollicking ride. And yet, there are moments so relatable and feelings so universal, you'll be nodding in agreement. About the bittersweet sensation of having loved and lost, Greer writes,

“Twenty years of joy and support and friendship, that’s a success. Twenty years of anything with another person is a success. If a band stays together twenty years, it’s a miracle. If a comedy duo stays together twenty years, they’re a triumph. Is this night a failure because it will end in an hour? Is the sun a failure because it’s going to end in a billion years? No, it’s the fucking sun. Why does a marriage not count?”

Unsurprisingly, journeys are metaphors that Greer uses to symbolise Less’ life and his taking the time to process it. Rewriting his latest manuscript dovetails into the same narrative of growing and changing as we go along the path of life. And of course, there is Arthur’s most famous work, Kalipso, a retelling of the Calypso myth from the The Odyssey. Need I say more?

Flashbacks from Less' life swirl into the narration every few pages but Greer ensures that they don’t impede the pace of the story while ever so gently feeding the reader crumbs of information that reveal the character of his protagonist. However, there are bits that feel a tad repetitve and kitschy but they didn't put me off.

Breezy, funny, heartwarming – it’s all in here. But that’s not all. As is usually the case with most things, Less is more.

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