Book Review: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

I couldn’t even get halfway through this book, but I’m reviewing it anyway because 1) I personally find it very interesting/satisfying to read negative reviews about books I didn’t like and am projecting that potential interest onto you, and 2) Because I find myself highly irritated by this book and want to vent about it.

This book won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s part of the reason I picked it up – that, and its charming cover. But after having read about a fourth of the book, I just can’t understand the Pulitzer. Initially, I tried to chalk it up to the fact that people have varying tastes in literature and that this book was possibly excellent but just not of my taste. However, upon further reading and reflection, I don’t think the writing merits publication in the New Yorker, not to mention the reception of one of the nation’s greatest literary prizes.

Remember in your undergraduate years studying English, how all your professors hammered this mantra into your head: “Show, don’t tell.” And also this one: “Avoid cliches.” And also: “Don’t wink at your audience.” And also: “Don’t be gimmicky.” And finally: “Don’t use shitty metaphors.”

Smart, sound rules. Less violates all of them.

The basic premise of the novel is that a middle-ages gay dude about to turn 50 is a less than mediocre writer who goes on a binge of accepting every lame-ass event invitation for months in order to avoid attending his much younger ex-lover’s wedding, which he was invited to. The plot, if you can call it that, follows this fundamentally underdeveloped and unlikeable guy around the world as he flees social embarrassment and old age. His name is Arthur Less, and the author, Andrew Greer, refers to Less repetitively by his full name even when it makes no sense to do so; alternately he is “Our hero,” or “young Arthur”.

Rather than showing Arthur go do stuff so we learn who he is and what he’s thinking, our omniscient narrator says – literally – “See Arthur do this” and”Watch our hero do this funny thing he does” and over-explains every little action. Even after just a few pages of punctilious exposition, I wanted to throw the book at the wall and scream “Jesus Christ! Just tell the story already!!!

And the whole book reads as if one cheesy inside joke. Aren’t failed writers so quirky and tragic? Lol! Isn’t it great how we can all recognize the signs of a has-been that never-was, and laugh at him because he knows it too? Isn’t the world of the literary elite so fucked up and random and exclusionary? (Well, that part at least is true – maybe Less won the Pulitzer because the committee looked at itself in the mirror, laughed, and figured if they could at least admit how arbitrary their judgment of talent can be, it makes it okay.)

As for the gimmicks – Warning! – major plot spoiler – the narrator of the book turns out to be Less’s young ex-lover, who spent all of 24 hours with his new husband before realizing he desperately wants to be with Less instead. This surprise is only unveiled in the last few pages of the book, when Less walks up the stairs to his trendy San Francisco apartment and his ex is standing there waiting for him. Barf.

I distinctly remember my Beginning Fiction teacher forbidding us to author stories that played these tricks: Writing a story about everything going on in a family’s life, and then revealing at the last moment: “And I know all this because I was the dog.” Or about looking in the neighbor’s window and seeing the young daughter go through a series of intense personal upheavals – which all turn out to be witnessed through the eyes of the omniscient old oak tree in the front yard. It’s stupid because it’s cheap. It’s lazy. It’s supposed to imbue a novel with an extra heavy layer of meaning because – surprise! – it’s a memoir written by an observer, possibly a loved one. Except it’s not.

And the metaphors – God. I’ll just list a few:

“It takes an hour and a half in traffic to get to the hotel; the rivers of taillights conjure lava flows that destroyed ancient villages.” (Ancient villages and lava have zero topical relevance.)

“… the lines on his face like origami that has been unfolded and smoothed down with your hand…” (so, like, crossing each other at 90 degree angles, or…?)

(Speaking of turbulence) “On and on the plane convulses in the moonlight, like a man turning into a werewolf.” (Wut.)

These all just ring so false for me, and they’re everywhere.

Also, this book is supposed to be tremendously funny. Here, I bow in recognition of the fact that different folks like different strokes when it comes to their sense of humor. As for me, I did not find this book clever, funny, or interesting for the same reasons I don’t find Modern Family clever, funny, or interesting. It felt repetitive, predictable, cliche, and tried desperately to be quirky and therefore came off as inauthentic.

In fact, I sat across from a girl at a dinner today that I actually had the exact same feeling towards: She behaves, always, as if she’s acting for everyone around her. Every emotion is over-expressed as if on stage. Rather than being surprised, she is the actor who is surprised: Arched eyebrows, mouth in a little o, eyes super wide and blinking pointedly. Everything she says could be scripted right out of Modern Family – behold the snarky quip at every turn! Now hear every character deliver the pithy insult! That shit just gets old so fast.

And there’s tons of these obscure lines that are supposed to be deep but are, in fact, totally meaningless (“A strong jaw, the kind an artist would sketch, a jaw that reveals the man he has become”). There’s so many “Perhaps”s and “I suppose”s that are perhaps meant to be cute, I suppose, but they aren’t because nobody really talks like that. And perhaps that’s the worst part of all: This book just doesn’t seem like anything that would ever happen. People don’t do things that people would ever do or say. I was continually sucked out of the reading because I would read something and think, What? That doesn’t make any sense.

So if you want to know what makes a book not a good book in my opinion, now ya know. If you disagree, I’d love to hear about it. Drop a comment below.

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