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Two thirds of the way through Andrew Sean Greer’s latest novel, he risks letting his novelist hero – white, gay, knocking 50 – describe his latest novel, which has been turned down by his publisher. “It was about a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco. And, you know, his … his sorrows … ” “A white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows?” replies his lesbian friend. “It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.” Greer can afford this moment of metafiction because, by this third act of the novel, his hero has won us over, for all that he enjoys most of the blessings of existence.
Despite its lampooning of the literary world, Less won this year’s Pulitzer prize for fiction, prompting its publication in Britain. It introduces us to minor novelist Arthur Less as he finds himself abruptly single, having coasted through a studiedly casual not-quite-relationship with a vain younger man for several years. Less is “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”. The younger man, who happens also to be the son of his arch enemy, announces his engagement to someone else.
While still not acknowledging to himself that he was in love all along and that his heart is cracked, if not quite broken, Less accepts a slew of writerly invitations that conveniently slot together to provide a round-the-world trip. Not only will he thus avoid the wedding, but sidestep the pain of turning 50 in company.
The various stages of this journey lend the novel its structure and, as is customary, provide both a parade of colourful characters and a voyage of self-discovery. They also neatly illustrate the scrabble-and-make-do that most freelance writers must resort to in order to survive, all those little jobs that make you feel like an author but that are not quite writing – “the crazy quilt of a writer’s life: warm enough, though it never quite covers the toes”.
Greer mercilessly skewers the insecurity of authors as well as the vanity of the literary industry’s self-absorption in the face of its irrelevance to most people’s lives. The stealthy genius of this novel is that it simultaneously tells the life story of a basically sweet man whom the industry has eaten alive. Less’s undoing, perhaps, is that he has been loved by a genius – he passed his youth as the lover of a celebrated poet – so has fallen into the habit of seeing himself as on the periphery of things. A twink-turned-daddy, he has yet to make the adjustment from kissed to kisser, and wreaks emotional havoc on anyone drawn in by his air of baffled innocence.
We first meet him in New York, where he has the humiliation of chairing a huge event for a wildly successful and wildly overrated science fiction writer. His next stop is Mexico, where he must take part in a panel discussion about his former lover’s genius. Then Italy, where an earlier novel of his, apparently brilliant in translation, is up for an obscure but well funded award: a sequence that catches particularly well the artificial camaraderie and false modesty of rivals thrown together for a prize. And so on to Germany, where he teaches a writing course entitled Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein. There he has a fling with a besotted business student and it is from the intimate details the narrator lets slip about the way Less kisses (“like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can only use the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you”) that the reader begins to suspect this story is being told not by some omniscient figure but by a character in it whom Less has underestimated. And then on to Paris, an ever less romantic journey across the desert in Morocco, a nightmarish food article he researches in Japan, and finally an Indian writing retreat. Here he plans to polish the rejected novel to perfection but, as the past reaches out to reclaim and challenge him, he is actually being prepared, we realise, finally to fall in love.
Novels about novelists are always a risk, but Less is about anyone who has allowed their calling to define them at the expense of their humanity. Writers may blush in the mirror it holds up to them, but many readers will find it as endearing as the very best of Armistead Maupin.
• Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing With You is published by Tinder in August. Less is published by Abacus. To order a copy for £7.64 (RRP £8.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian
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