For someone who is only 47 and has won a Pulitzer Prize, Andrew Sean Greer certainly knows how to get inside the head of someone who is 50 and hasn’t. Less is, among other things, a novel about the aches and pains of midlife, real and imagined; its hero, Arthur Less, turns 50 in the course of the book. By a happy coincidence — or one engineered by The Spectator’s literary editor — while reading Less I too marked my half-century. (Send no flowers.) Reader, I laughed and I cried; this is a hilarious, heart-warming and thoroughly midlife-enhancing book.
Less is a failed novelist, or at least thinks of himself as one. When we first meet him, he is waiting to interview the famous science fiction author H.H.H. Mandern, onstage to celebrate the launch of his new novel: ‘In it, he revives his wildly popular Holmesian robot, Peabody’:
Why him? Why did they ask Arthur Less? A minor author whose greatest fame was a youthful association with the Russian River School of writers and artists, 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. Well, Less knows why. It is no mystery. A calculation was made: what literary writer would agree to prepare for an interview and yet not be paid? It had to be someone terribly desperate.
Less is indeed a desperate man. We soon learn that he is on the run. His (younger) ex-boyfriend of nine years is getting married and he urgently needs an excuse not to attend the wedding. So he has accepted all the invitations on his desk to half-baked literary events around the world: interviewing a more popular author in New York, attending a prize ceremony in Italy, a spot of lecturing in Germany, and so on.
As the author of five novels and a volume of short stories, Greer has no doubt experienced his fair share of half-baked literary events. On one level, Less is a glorious anthology of all the exquisite humiliations that can be heaped upon a writer (my favourite is the interviewer who introduces Less to an audience with the words: ‘We were talking backstage about mediocrity’), but it is also a lyrical, moving essay on the rewards of creativity and perseverance in the second half of life. Oh, and it is wise, generous of spirit and beautifully written. More!