Skip to main content




Like his writer protagonist’s fourth novel --- the one that prompts his publisher of 15 years to sever their relationship --- the premise of Andrew Sean Greer’s fifth novel, LESS, doesn’t sound especially promising. And yet Greer manages to turn this story of a novelist on the cusp of his 50th birthday, who decides to embark on a round-the-world trip to bury his grief when the man who’s been his partner for nine years abandons him to marry another man, into a funny, touching and insightful story. No matter how far we travel, this gentle novel reminds us, the most perilous journey we face is the one into ourselves.

Arthur 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.” In fact, his main claim to fame surrounds the years he spent as the lover of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet 25 years his senior. From his time with Robert Brownburn, Less learns that living with genius is “Like living alone. Like living with a tiger.” And he knows his own career can’t begin to measure up to that unforgiving standard.

Fresh from the news that his younger (by 15 years) lover Freddy Pelu has decided to marry another man, Less cobbles together a journey only a writer could create, featuring literary festivals, a teaching post, a retreat and an article assignment, that takes him from his home in San Francisco to Mexico City, Turin, Berlin, Morocco, India and Japan. Apart from the ordinary indignities of travel --- cancelled flights, lost luggage and less than impressive accommodations --- Less is forced to endure more than his share of unique personal and professional embarrassments.

"Greer...wrestles with vexing questions about life in the middle years, the difficulty of responding to the demands of art, and what it means to be committed to another human being."

In tracing the arc of Less’ odyssey, Greer studiously avoids overstepping the line between skillful satire and heavy-handed humor. That’s evident in his account of the Italian literary contest (judged by a panel of high school students) where Less’ novel faces off against several other works in translation, as he wonders “what god has enough free time to arrange this very special humiliation, to fly a minor novelist across the world so that he can feel, in some seventh sense, the minusculitude of his own work?” Less’ mangling of the German language --- the only foreign one in which he professes any fluency --- during the stint in Berlin when he teaches a course entitled “Read like a Vampire, Write like Frankenstein” is rife with comic material.

Then there’s the scene at a Paris literary party, where a fellow gay writer explains to Less that he’s not in the “gay canon,” not because he’s a bad writer, but because he’s a “bad gay.” “It is our duty to show something beautiful from our world. The gay world.” the writer admonishes him. But in your books, you make the characters suffer without reward. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a Republican.”

Greer lingers just long enough in each of the venues where Less alights. Whether it’s his encounter with a sandstorm in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains or the quiet residency he anticipates at a “place full of art, providing three vegetarian meals a day, a yoga mat, and Aryuvedic tea” on the Arabian Sea in India that instead turns out to be a not entirely placid Christian retreat center, Less repeatedly is given ample reason to question his choice to flee his life in San Francisco. He can run from that life, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to escape it.

Less’ regrets aren’t limited to his relative literary insignificance. Even in the midst of his long-term relationships, he’s placed fidelity low on the list of virtues. Now that he’s deep into middle age with no prospect of a new partner in his life, he rues that lack of faithfulness even more strongly.

Though Greer is quick with a quip, LESS (which inevitably will invoke comparisons to John Updike’s Henry Bech novels) is not simply a light entertainment. Greer, who’s approaching his protagonist’s age, wrestles with vexing questions about life in the middle years, the difficulty of responding to the demands of art, and what it means to be committed to another human being. LESS ends with its protagonist attaining a level of self-knowledge, and perhaps even self-forgiveness, he didn’t possess when the story began. Greer also tosses in a satisfying twist that reveals the identity of the story’s narrator, while giving us hope that Arthur Less may yet be able to write his masterpiece, perhaps a work that shares some of this novel’s charm.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 21, 2017

by Andrew Sean Greer

  • Publication Date: May 22, 2018
  • Genres: Comedy, Fiction, Romance
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 031631613X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316316132