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September 3, 2018

Less

by Anne Paddock

There is an old Arabic story about a man who hears Death is coming for him, so he sneaks away to Samarra. And when he gets there, he finds Death in the market, and Death says “You know, I just felt like going on vacation to Samarra.  I was going to skip you today, but how lucky you showed up to find me! And the man is taken after all.

When the book “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2018, there were generally three camps of people: those who didn’t understand how this book won what many consider the most prestigious annual literary award in the world, those who totally got it, and the rest, myself included who didn’t understand why the book won until they got through most of the book and realized the brilliance is not only the story but also how it was told (note: I didn’t really like the book until I got to the end when the story came together brilliantly).

The controversy surrounding “Less” being Pulitzer worthy reminds me of what happened in 2011 when Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Good Squad” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Many readers and critics were perplexed because the book wasn’t typical in its structure or story – a non-traditional timeline of events and a cast of characters that seemed more like a study in six degrees of separation. But the story was brilliant, as is Less, the gay version of  “Around the World in 80 Days.”  You just have to read and stick with the book to understand why.

Arthur Less is a writer on the cusp of turning 50. He is also gay, insecure about his talent, living alone in San Francisco, and heartbroken.  After receiving an invitation to the wedding of his most recently departed lover of 9 years, Arthur decides he needs a good excuse not to attend the nuptials, so he books a whirlwind trip across the world that includes:

  • New York City to interview a successful science fiction writer;
  • Mexico to attend a conference and serve on a panel to discuss the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, Robert Brownburn (a former lover);
  • Italy where he has been nominated for a prestigious literary award in which he doesn’t think he has a chance of winning;
  • Germany where he has been retained to teach a 5-week literary course;
  • Paris, a stopover (that turns into a stay);
  • Morocco to attend a birthday party of a friend;
  • India to isolate himself at a writer’s retreat where he hopes to rewrite the final draft of his most recent book; and
  • Japan to research cuisine before heading back to San Francisco.

Organized by geographical stops, Less is the story of an insecure middle-aged writer who thinks he is running away from his problems when, in fact, his problems follow him wherever he goes. Although the story is told from a gay perspective (when most fiction is told from a straight point of view),  the big issues are universal: professional insecurity, aging, loneliness, regret, and love, all told with a humorous backdrop of international travel that will make you laugh out loud (his take on the getting a VAT refund is absolutely hilarious). But, the brilliance of the story is not whether the protagonist is gay or straight, but how the issues are tackled by a narrator who seems all-knowing in the face of doubt.

Life so often arrives all of a sudden.

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