Less happens to be more

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday July 25, 2017
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San Francisco author Andrew Sean Greer. Photo: Kaliel<br>Roberts
San Francisco author Andrew Sean Greer. Photo: Kaliel

If there are beach books in San Francisco – brrr – this summer's ought to be "Less." The latest novel by San Franciscan Andrew Sean Greer, "Less" (Lee Boudreux Books/Little, Brown) is a book that has found its beat as well as its voice. Few other things are as subjective as "funny," which is mostly in the ribs of the be-tickled, but Greer has sidestepped ungainly pratfalls by focusing his wit on the rich comedy of travel in foreign cultures (camels are ridden) and, particularly, on the haplessness of its protagonist, the nebbish-y WASP failing novelist Arthur Less. The wit, while keen, is mild-mannered and well-behaved, always hinting that the author is making fun of himself first and foremost, and only then of the comedy of errors that is all of us.

Humor is a high-wire act at the best of times, but since ours are not the best of times, Greer's fast-reading 250-page literary caper is particularly welcome. But the novel is both more and less than it appears, and while it signals from the start that the reader would err in taking it too seriously – or seriously at all, really – Greer's ambition in this, his sixth novel, shows.

The art of the avoidance of writing has never been mined more deeply for its humor than in Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage." In "Less" Greer gives us the well-trodden ground of a novel about a failing and flailing novelist – and pulls it off. Early on, his protagonist, whom his creator will only call Less, commits, on the page, what he acknowledges as the novelist's – any novelist's – fatal error: talking about his book. It has the predictable result of making Less' novel sound lame – and the payoff for Greer of keeping attention off it, of getting the reader to care almost as little as Less whether a second go at the book will whip it into shape. Only as "Less" (not Less) settles down, and with it the reader, does Greer venture more advanced writerly moves – multiple narrative points of view, elastic plot-lines, some flirty, mildly postmodern winking directly at his audience – and then with something less than the wingspan of an albatross, to use his own expression.

"Less" is more ur- than meta-novel, and from his likely subgenre choices, the epistolary and the picaresque, Greer has shrewdly chosen the latter. The conceit is that Less, whose latest novel has been declined by a publisher who previously hoped he would become "family," has also been unmoored (whether dumper or dumpee varies) by his boyfriend Freddy – that abandonment hard on the heels of his older long-term lover's having gone back to his wife. To avoid the horror of attending Freddy's surprise gay wedding, Less accepts all of his recent, rum offers to speak, read, interview and give and receive dubious prizes abroad, a back-of-the-napkin sum of which tells him he could travel around the world more or less expense-paid (a key consideration). In short, it is a planned misadventure.

The devilish humor is in the details. His older lover is Robert Brownburn, unofficial poet laureate of the "Russian River School," a self-designated aggregate of writers and other artists from the wider 1970s and 80s Bay Area scene whose principal achievement was staying wasted. A putative "genius" but self-acknowledged rolling financial crisis, Robert has, in the breakup, given Less their rickety artist's garret on the Vulcan Steps. Readers not steeped in San Francisco geography or the city's gay arts scene of the last half-century will be able to follow the jolly goings-on (AIDS is but the remotest of shadows), but, like the readers of Michael Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue" who did not also live in the East Bay in the same time period, they will "get," well, less.

There are regular reminders, and narrative evidence, that Less is bad in bed – not that that has left his belt or the headboard of his bed un-notched, or curbed his infidelities. The most wounding thing he is told during his travels is that he is a bad gay. But Greer shelters the reader from the full impact of the "bad gay" charge by making Less ever likeable, a lesser Parsifal of the Grail sandcastle built on the gay beach at Lands End.

As a young Freddy's father Carlos (don't ask) tells Less at an upscale resort in India (ditto): "I remember when we met [at Lands End]. You were so skinny, all clavicle and hipbone! And innocent. The rest of us were so far from innocent, I don't think we even thought about pretending. You were different. I think everybody wanted to touch that innocence, maybe ruin it. Your way of going through the world, unaware of danger. Clumsy and naive. Of course I envied you."

The laughs subside in hallucinatory everyday India, and we feel ourselves moving toward – what? Innocence recaptured? The landing is messier and softer than that, but you see why Armistead Maupin is wild about "Less."