Less – Andrew Sean Greer (2018)

 

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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.

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 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.

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 Less was published in the UK by Abacus in 2018

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Now In November – Josephine Johnson (Apollo 2016)

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One of a batch of eight rediscovered classics  from Apollo.  I’m lucky enough to have most of them and will be reviewing more in due course.  This is a debut novel from 1934 and was written by twenty-four year old Josephine Johnson.  It was a big success and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935.  Johnson was unable to recapture the critical acclaim of this despite another ten novels and her work has in recent years faded from memories.  So thanks to Apollo for allowing modern readers the chance to discover this impressive work.

 

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It is a novel rich in poetry.   The narrator is fourteen years old at the start of the book.   Marget arrives with her parent and two sisters to work a farm in an arid, hostile environment.  The eldest sister, Kerren, is an intense, disturbed girl but is the only one who can make an escape from the farm when she commences a local teaching job.  Marget and Merle are devoted to the life of the farm, although environmental conditions and a hefty mortgage ensure that it will always be a struggle to survive.  Their father employs Grant, a neighbour’s son, to help out which inevitably stir emotions in the young women.  In the introduction Michael Schmidt compares the novel to an Emily Bronte from a different era and continent.  In “Wuthering Heights” the landscape infiltrates the novel, in this the landscape becomes the novel.  There’s little joy to be found here, the cycle of the year brings its continual challenges.  A birthday celebration ends tragically and even a period of plenty is dismissed because if everyone has plenty then no-one will buy.  The most overwhelming challenge is drought.  The novel does read like a prose poem and incidents away from the struggle on the farm are rare until the last third when a catastrophic event begins to heap tragedies upon the family.

Characterisation is strong and draws the reader in and it is a much easier read than than the above would suggest.  It did have the feel of Steinbeck’s “Grapes Of Wrath” published five years later without the travelling but with Steinbeck’s ability to step back from the story at times and let the environment tell its own tale.  I think a reading group would get much discussion from this.  I’m looking forward to reading others in the Apollo series.

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Now In November is published in 2016 by Apollo.  Reviews of other books in the series by myself and others can be found on the Nudge website