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Saturday, 29 December 2018

Book review: Less, Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

This novel about a gay writer living in California who is approaching 50 is a bit flimsy and I only made it about 10 percent of the way through it before getting bored. Arthur Less is a minor name novelist who has just broken up with a younger lover, a man who wanted to become a school teacher and who achieved that life goal, but who finds a new lover who wants him to be monogamous. The wedding is scheduled and Arthur is invited but he doesn’t want to go and instead takes up a series of offers from writers' festivals and other kinds of literary engagement, and goes off travelling.

He starts out in New York, where he is to interview a successful science fiction author on-stage. While walking on the street in that city Arthur meets up with an ex-lover and his new boyfriend. At first Arthur fails to recognise Howard but eventually the penny drops. This is the kind of drama this book retails in. Books by writers about the writing life are not uncommon (Rachel Cusk’s 2014 novel ‘Outline', which was reviewed on this blog on 19 September, is one example; there is also Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel ‘Normal People’, which was reviewed on 23 September here) but I have not found one yet that is so sure about the details of the life but seemingly so oblivious to what is really important in life.

There’s something arch and precious about this novel that reminded me while reading of the economical flair of Nabokov, but there is no indication that Greer has any special insights about the nature of existence, the realities of contemporary societies, or anything substantial for that matter. You have plenty of opportunities to admire Greer’s excellent expressive powers but there is little underneath the surface. In fact it’s all surface, and you skid across the top of it like a first-timer on skates at the skating rink.

As for the title, I think the clue lies in the way that genre fiction – including crime thrillers, spy thrillers, science fiction – relies on murder and other forms of violence to advance the plot. The New York event that Arthur goes to is an event held to celebrate the fiction of a science fiction author, and Arthur is scheduled to get up on stage and interview the man.

I am not a big fan of genre fiction but in some cases such novels are now better-written than they have been in the past. There is a sort of sub-genre cross-over zone now where genre and literary fiction tropes are explored in books and such works can satisfy lovers of both formats. But the idea that “less is more” is without doubt a trope for literary fiction. I had a friend who is a lover of science fiction who told me that he feels literary fiction is too narrow in its concerns and is only interested in romance. He has a point in a way, since a lot of fiction relies on a plot that turns on whether a man and a woman will get married. This is the way that people have been writing novels for hundreds of years.

To return to the point, what Greer has done that is so interesting in this context is to tone down the action in ‘Less’ to a pedestrian level in order to cement in the reader’s mind that his is a literary novel, not one of those busy, high-toned genre books. So this book is determinedly literary in its scope, and thus part of its identity is formed in opposition to more popular genre novels.

It’s a tonic to have a book like this where a point of high drama is provided when one man greets another man in the street and the second man forgets the first man’s name. It’s quite different from your usual genre plot, which often involves the deaths of many people and the endangerment of the life of the hero. Or a suicide. Or two suicides. (The more the better, it often appears.) So I can see how we need to have books like Greer’s. I just wasn’t convinced by the poetry it offers to the reader as a vehicle for the ideas it contains.

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