Review: Andrew Sean Greer’s worthy sequel “Less is Lost”

On the shelf

Less is lost

By Andrew Sean Greer
Little, Brown: 272 pages, $29

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Andrew Sean Greer surprised many observers when he received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel Les. Graphic novels generally don’t do well at the big awards shows. (Ask Gary Shteyngart or Nell Zink, Sam Lipsyte, et cetera.) But “Less” was extraordinarily well done, a funny tale about Arthur Less, an insecure, middle-aged, underselling gay novelist who presses the eject button on his life after a breakup to take a whirlwind trip around the world. Coincidentally, among the goals of Greer’s gentle ripping was the Pulitzer Prize itself. “You win one prize and it’s all over,” says a poet to Arthur. “You teach for the rest of your life. But you never write again.”

The punchline was that Arthur was dying to win one of those awards anyway. And it’s a pretty good punchline now, because not only did Greer win the Pulitzer, he actually rewrote it. Less Is Lost is a familiar sequel to its predecessor that doesn’t seem to bode well for its prospects. But if Greer just reapplies the “less” formula – insecure, underselling, whirlwind trip, etc. – it’s one that allows for a lot of inventiveness and flexibility. Take an insecure man, a “middle-aged gay white novelist no one’s heard of,” and take him to a variety of places he’s uncomfortable, especially uncomfortable everywhere, and a certain Levels of hilarity are bound to follow. We are promised “a donkey, a pug, a whale and a moose” early on. The full menagerie arrives just in time.

This time, Less’ travels are limited to the United States, and Arthur goes on a crazy cross-country sprint with hardship chasing him. After the death of his former longtime lover Robert, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Arthur learns that the probate court is admonishing him for years of back rent payments at Robert’s San Francisco home. So he’s forced to accept performances that are respectable but mean a tad less for a wannabe celebrity author: judging a literary award; writing a magazine profile in the Southwest; overseeing a musical version of one of his stories in the Southeast; a lecture tour along the Atlantic coast.

An identity crisis and tight deadlines will drive a writer to do weird things, and soon Arthur becomes embroiled in an RV trip with a George RR Martin-like writer who is looking for his daughter. In the process, Arthur unknowingly takes a hallucinogen, stars in a water disaster, and once again uses his painfully mediocre German, one of the best things in Greer’s joke box. Arthur gets nervous when confronted by a group of German nudists. “I’m shy too!” he offers lamely. Because he is told they are talking about breakups, his phrasebook German does not match the subject he is best at. “Here’s a sad conversation,” he tries.

"Less is lost" by Andrew Sean Greer

Sad conversation he often has. He’s shy – in an entertaining way. But what’s really remarkable about Less’ Pulitzer win isn’t that it’s a comedy; It’s that it’s basically a romance, a genre that faces an even rougher road with awards juries. All globetrotters in “Less” pave the way to a happy ending. A similar story unfolds in Less Is Lost as Arthur finds his way from San Francisco to Maine where his lover Freddy is teaching. The RV he drives is nicknamed Rosina, a name reminiscent of Rocinante, the steed Don Quixote rode in search of his Dulcinea.

The sequel is also full of love, family, and home — when she takes a break from her various face plants, misunderstandings, and yes, that moose. Arthur struggles to reconnect not only with Freddy but also with his long-absent father. In this context, every gag, misstep, and clumsy German line serves the themes of loss and recovery, from the sweater in Arthur’s luggage being ripped apart by an electric shaver to America itself. “America, how’s your marriage going?” Greer writes. “Your two hundred and fifty-year promise to stay together in sickness and in health? … Who betrayed whom in the end? I heard you were trying to sober up. That didn’t last, did it?”

In the midst of it all, Arthur wrestles with the question of what makes him lovable – and if not his writing, then what is it? (A late twist in the novel’s plot cleverly complicates this question.) That self-awareness can be difficult for those around a writer, as Freddy—the actual narrator of the novel—points out. “There may be writers whose imaginations are so fertile that they just sow the seeds and water regularly, and every year or so a novel blossoms – and those writers’ partners are lucky. But all other writers, it seems, have to supply their own manure.”

To extend the metaphor, Arthur generates a lot of dirt. What makes his novels funny is Greer’s understanding of how absurdly writers distort their psyches to feel like they matter, like they’re loved. (So ​​it’s better that Less himself isn’t the narrator; it would read as crushing heartbreak, if not madness.) These contortions are also what make the books poignant. The tricky part is balancing the two modes via tone, style, and storyline. Greer’s job is to ground the absurd in tenderness without being cute or cloying. He masters both – the embarrassing moment, but also the gentle grace note – as if he were capturing the desolate atmosphere of a wake: “Soft piano music penetrates through the window and, finding nothing valuable, steals out again and falls silent.”

Early on, Arthur learns from his former lover, the Pulitzer-winning poet, a kind of secret to success, both as a writer and as a person: “Look. … That’s all you have to do. Watch out.” The punchline here is that the world is so full of distractions that Arthur misses the opportunity or pays attention to the wrong things. This leads to the moments of deception that are the lifeblood of funny novels. But trying to pay attention being is also touching: like writing a novel or finding a happy place to call home, it is hard, rewarding work.

Athitakis is a writer based in Phoenix and the author of The New Midwest. Review: Andrew Sean Greer’s worthy sequel “Less is Lost”

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