I’m abandoning the embarrassment of having a “…is awesome” set of posts. If I find awesome stuff, I want to share it.
Less is a novel by Andrew Sean Greer, and it won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I’ve been steering clear of prizewinners over the past few years, because the politics of who wins what prize is a bit nauseating.
Eventually, I saw enough good comments by enough people I trust to give it a try. Wow, I’m glad I did. It’s funny, has a unique and strong voice, clever and insightful descriptions, and somehow manages to be tragic and heartwarming at the same time.
I want to address the elephant in the room first. Most of the negative reviews (and they have a lot of upvotes) demonstrate a clear failing of the modern education system. Here are some actual verbatim quotes:
I also found Less such a privileged, oblivious character. He is tall, attractive, white, able-bodied, and can afford to travel. His privilege is not examined in any interesting or meaningful way.
It’s heavy and dull with this self absorbed white man mourning his youth…There’s nothing wrong with his life at all except for the fact that he’s way too self-absorbed and does next to nothing for anyone besides himself.
He is literally mid-life, 30 years down and roughly 30 to go. Somehow this is a burden to him, living his privileged, tall, handsome white guy life surrounded by men who really like kissing him. Oh, poor thing.
There seems to be a modern trend to think that one cannot have sympathy or empathy for a main character that is white, male, and “able-bodied.” I feel sorry for these readers, because this lack of empathy on their part shows way more about them than the novel itself.
The whole point of a novel is to learn to see through the main character’s eyes, and understand why they think their problems are real. Someone that has actually read the book should understand that Less has struggles and problems.
Why is Less so preoccupied with being fifty? This seems to be a mystery to a large number of reviewers. It seems trivial to them (I mean, he still has 30 great years left, don’t you know!). Let’s see if the text of the novel gives us a clue:
Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old…He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’ generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty.
So, dear reader of this blog: can you come up with any reason, any reason at all, why Less might see turning fifty as a monumental point of his life? Take some time. It’s hard to understand why any privileged white man would see any aspect of his life as difficult or challenging.
I think Millennials and iGen have no conception of history. They think that whatever is happening right now is exactly how it’s always been.
As a gay man, I’ll admit that right now is pretty great. But to think Less has had no struggle in his life is to forget a tragic part of history. Less spent most of his youth thinking he’d never grow old, losing all his friends to a horrific epidemic, and then feeling guilty for surviving it.
The novel opens with Less as a failed novelist, whose lover of nine years has just invited him to his wedding to a different man. The way Less tries to avoid the wedding is to accept invitations to speak around the world at events no prominent novelist would be caught dead at.
(Note how different this is than “can afford to travel.” He’s not taking a leisure trip. These are work trips paid for by the events, not the main character).
If you read this book and think: why’s he even upset? At least he’s not being shot by cops. At least his boss didn’t sexually harass him. He’s a white man with no problems.
Well, then you’re pretty hopeless, and maybe reading books isn’t the best idea until you work some of that out with a therapist. No one is saying his problems are worse than someone else’s. Just because it’s not a talking point of the day, doesn’t mean it’s not important to the character.
The problems of Less have to do with heartbreak and aging and figuring out what makes a life worth living and being remembered and finding love. These are timeless issues found in great art throughout history. Hopefully we don’t lose these themes merely because a generation of critics view the only worthwhile topics to be what they saw on Vox that day.
Sorry to spend so long on this, but as someone who writes books, I find this growing movement very concerning.
So, what’s so awesome about Less?
A lot came up in that rant already, but one of the greatest parts is how brilliant the descriptions are.
His slim shadow is, in fact, still that of his younger self, but at nearly fifty he is like those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolor beautifully until they match the trees.
If such a sentence occurred in a vacuum of otherwise banal prose, I’d say cut it; it would be too much.
But this voice and style abound throughout the novel and stays quite consistent. The result is a flurry of original images and similes and metaphors that always bring the right emotional resonance to the scene.
Greer has a talent for “breaking the rules” in impeccable ways for a powerful reading experience. I think all writers should read this for examples on how to do description and prose style well.