On the shelf
Less is lost
By Andrew Sean Greer
Little, Brown: 272 pages, $29
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In 2011 I attended a writers’ dinner. The best part, apart from the fact that it was on the Amalfi Coast, was that I sat next to writer Andrew Sean Greer, who was tall, handsome, funny and lovely. This is remarkable for two reasons. First, Greer won the 2018 Pulitzer for Less, his graphic novel about an unfortunate writer named Arthur Less, who has all of Greer’s worst traits — and none of his best. And second, Less covers all the joys and discontents of travel, as does Greer’s new follow-up novel, Less Is Lost.
Greer is not an overnight success. His first novel, The Path of Minor Planets, received strong reviews when it was published in 2001, as did The Confessions of Max Tivoli (2004, inspired by Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages). But his real breakthrough – before the Pulitzer – was The Story of a Marriage, about a woman who receives a fateful visit from a war friend of her husband’s.
With Less, however, came real fame, the kind that changes lives forever. And schedules. “I’ve learned that after you win one of these big awards, you need a year for all the events and engagements,” says Greer, speaking via video conference from his San Francisco home. (He splits his time between California and Milan, where his partner Enrico lives with their dog Quo.)
Less Is Lost is more of a companion to Less than a sequel. Yes, Arthur Less has embarked on a journey once again, and yes, it’s about space operetta creator HHH Mandern, a delightfully satirical construct. But this time our hero has fallen in love, and the purpose of his journey will be to accept that he is worthy of this love.
Like a great overland journey, our conversation meandered—edited for length and clarity—but stayed true to a common theme: how travel can open us to the wonders, fears, divisions, and many layers of the United States of America.
Where does Less Is Lost come from for you?
Where does comedy come from? It’s coming from really, really dark places. When you get down there you’re like, OK, I have to go through this. I can’t stay in it anymore. I have to find another point of view. So Less Is Lost started with the 2016 election. When Trump won, I was like, ‘I don’t understand this country at all. So I’m going to rent a van and drive around the Southwest and Deep South for six weeks and just see what I see.”
You actually did.
Yes. Arthur Less only goes for a week and a half, but I was there for six weeks. No big cities. All small towns. I had to sit at the bar counter and talk to people. I didn’t have a pug named Dolly with me and I didn’t just have a van like Arthur. I had three different vans.
What did you find out about America?
I made this journey in 2018 which feels like worlds away from where we are now. I could tell everyone was in pain, from the cop who stopped me for skidding through a stop sign to the owner of a taco place. The cop wanted to be in the Marines but got pregnant by a girl and had to go to the police. The taco place owner made her dreams come true when the owner died and left the restaurant to her. There was the lesbian couple who ran a sandwich shop in rural Alabama, a place where they were uncomfortable but had moved there because a woman’s mother fell ill.
It only took a minute for people to tell me the story they cared about. It was so shocking. They really wanted to say that thing that was causing them pain. I did not include their stories in the book. It’s not a book of pain. But it is a book full of empathy. This is Arthur Less’ mode. He never makes fun of the place he travels to, but the joke is always at his expense because he’s the thing that’s out of place. That was my rule for this book.
So this is not a political book.
I’m not good at polemics of any kind. I have political ideas, but I’m just not good at putting them across in novels. So I’ve learned to stick to what I’m good at, which is humor and detail and a slight push to speak out about racial injustice. I didn’t want it to be a book about meeting Black people and seeing the light. I wanted Less to meet white people and talk about white people to explore that. I think that’s my job.
Her narrator, Less’ partner Freddy Pelu, is a person of color. Why do we need Freddy as our leading voice?
Because it’s a good way for me to distance myself from a character who is very similar to me. To be able to lovingly poke fun at Less, and in that sense poke fun at myself, because if I were writing a character like me in the first person, I’d be a lot harder on myself. And it would be an awkward book to do that oscillates between pity and self-harm, and it just wouldn’t be cheerful. Also, the Freddy voice gives me an omniscient narrator, and if you’re a writer, that gives you everything.
Were you, like Freddy, on the easternmost inhabited island of the USA?
I spent three months of the early pandemic captive in Maine, delightfully captive, I should say, in the Chabons [Michael and his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman]who were generous enough to take me in. They were gone for the weekend and I thought, “I’m going to go to the easternmost inhabited place in America, that might be something for the book.” I went, but to Matinicus Island. And when I arrived at the port, the owner’s caretaker called and said he was too old and ill to take a visitor.
But you took the train across the country. How did that affect Less Is Lost?
I took a train from San Francisco to Chicago with my mother. Riding the train through the Rocky Mountains is like a Disney ride of beauty. Then I went from Chicago to Harpers Ferry, Virginia and met my father. It sounds presumptuous to say, but I wanted to write a book about America that was also a book about my country, the country I live in, and not an idealized version.
But the joy of traveling is palpable. How does it relate to the larger themes in the book?
I read many books about the gay experience as suffering and I thought, “That’s not my experience.” In fact, my experience is that despite living through the AIDS years and despite terrible grief and oppression, the fight back was always a kind of defiant joy. I’ve never seen anything like this portrayed and I wanted my characters to have an ecstatic experience, with all the little details and funny moments that make you feel alive. I think that’s what makes traveling fun, that everything feels new. It’s very difficult for me, but I’m trying to stay present and notice what’s beautiful and delicious right here in the moment.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-19/how-trumps-election-set-less-author-andrew-sean-greer-off-on-a-road-trip-and-a-sequel Andrew Sean Greer on travel, his sequel novel “Less is Lost”