About a month ago my mother asked me to bring down two books with me the next time I visit her in New Jersey: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (for her book club) and Less by Andrew Sean Greer because she couldn’t find a paperback edition at the Barnes and Noble in Clark. Of course, this meant I had to read them first. I started reading The Little Paris Bookshop first. It’s the story of Monsieur Perdue, who owns a floating bookstore in Paris he calls The Literary Apothecary. He thinks of himself more than a bookseller. He finds the right book to “heal” the reader from what Perdue thinks is bothering them. But of course, he can’t heal himself. When his lover Manon leaves him, he can’t bring him to open the letter she gives him…for 20 years! It was that kind of book and gave up on it about 160 pages into it. That was good though because I then read Less, which might be my favorite book I read this year.
Less is the story of minor novelist Arthur Less. When he gets an invitation to his ex-boyfriend’s wedding, he decides not to accept and be the subject of pity. Instead, Arthur accepts a number of invitations to literary events around the world. In New York City, he’s supposed to interview a famous science fiction writer in front of a huge audience. There is a seminar in Mexico about the Russian River Writers and he is invited because Less was a lover of one of its more famous members, the poet Robert Brownburn. In Italy, Arthur’s latest novel is up for a prize judged by local high school students. In Berlin, he is invited to lecture at a small college. In India, he goes to a writer’s retreat to rewrite his next book. In Japan, he is doing research on an article on a particular Japanese cuisine. And if that’s not enough, he goes to Morocco to celebrate his 50th birthday.
Less is a great comic novel. I am a fan of the genre and love comic gems like Rueben, Rueben by Peter De Vries, The Darling Buds of May by H. E. Bates and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. What is amazing about Less that it’s very funny in this age of political correctness, where stuff that was funny 20 or 30 years ago isn’t considered funny now. The humor is never mean or cruel. It usually comes from Arthur’s awkwardness and miscommunication. Arthur Less is a gay sad sack of a man who bumbles through the World and yet we root for him to succeed. It also though is poignant at times as Less has to learn how to deal with being a gay man turning 50.
Some people talk about one day living in a “post-gay” world, where your sexuality doesn’t matter. I don’t think we are ever going to get there but I think Less is a “post-gay” novel. Less is never the target of homophobia. He is never bothered for being gay. He is not gay bashed coming out of a bar. He is never called a gay slur. Being gay is not a cause of anxiety for him. He never suffers from internal homophobia like David in James Baldwin’s masterpiece Giovanni’s Room. Arthur Less suffers more from the anxiety of turning 50. I think that’s part of the brilliance of the book. Andrew Sean Greer reflects on the generation of gay men after the AIDS epidemic trying to figure out how to age gracefully after 50.
I was surprised when Less won The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. I was expecting a more political book to win. That said, I’m so glad the book won and is finding an audience. Greer writes beautifully crafted sentences and has written a funny book about growing older that I think almost anyone can relate to that.