American author Andrew Sean Greer is no stranger to my end of year Top 10s. His 2004 “Confessions of Max Tivoli” impressed me much on the two occasions I have read it. Its clever conceit of a man getting younger as those age around him may have been used before, but by putting a love interest in for main character Max and having their lives intersecting over the years gave it a fascinating dimension. My only niggle with the book was the fictional world Greer created did not feel to me much like the turn of the twentieth century America he’d intended.
He is sticking with the present with this, his 5th novel which was a surprise winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Praised on the cover by writers such as Armistead Maupin and Ann Patchett this seemed like a must for me to read. It has scooped perhaps the top literary prize of all and yet it is a fairly straightforward romantic comedy rather than some heavy tome. It just shows the world is in need of lightness right now. But does this book actually deliver this?
It’s just a few months since the judging panel of the Wodehouse Prize for comic novels took the controversial decision of not awarding this year as they did not consider any of the 62 novels submitted to be funny enough. I think Greer would have missed the publishing deadline for this year as this comic novel with literary plaudits would surely have given the judges something to think about.
My only alarm bells were that this is a book about a writer and the publishing industry. Is there much comedy mileage in this for the general reader? Books about writers are often not as good as they think they are. They can have a tendency to inflated importance and pretentiousness. Would a comic novel about writers only be funny to those in the know (ie: those who promote and review books and sit on judging panels). Would it be full of in-jokes?
Title character Arthur Less is approaching 50 and faces rejection of his latest novel, his age milestone and his ex inviting him to his wedding by planning a world tour of writing-based activities, from taking part in festivals, teaching, attending award ceremonies and attempting to find space to revise his latest work. The humour is largely in the character of Arthur Less, who did win this reader over (it took a while) by his vanity and self-absorption which actually becomes surprisingly quite endearing.
Greer’s writing is infused with humour. There are some of the pratfalls and misunderstandings which are all too common with lead characters in chick-lit but the humour here runs throughout the narrative and this is what works well. I did laugh out loud a few times but there is a wit and a warmth which heightens this novel’s appeal. There’s also the irony of the rejected novel being about a middle-aged gay San Franciscan on a journey, questioning the meaning of his life, when this is what “Less” is all about.
I did find it very enjoyable but I am still surprised by its Pulitzer achievement as it seems very understated compared to the more showy novels which tend to be up for awards. It just shows what an impression this must have made on the judging panel to garner the prize but I’m still not convinced I liked it more than “Max Tivoli” even though on paper it seems just like the sort of book I would adore. For those who tend to steer away from prize-winning novels this might be the time to think again and see if Arthur Less can win you over.
Less was published in the UK by Abacus in 2018