Reading Note:
Less
15 November 2018

In Morocco, Arthur Less, a writer circumnavigating the globe in order to avoid his boyfriend’s wedding to another man, meets a handsome, bold woman named Zohra. She is one of those people who gets to the point without having to wade through questionnaires. Zohra asks Less about his new novel, which it seems his publisher doesn’t like. Less has made it a rule never to discuss his books until they are printed, because “people are so careless with their responses.” But he trusts Zohra.

“It was about a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco. And, you know, his … his sorrows…” Her face has begun to fold inward in a dubious expression, and he finds himself trailing off. […]

Zohra asks, “Is this a white middle-aged man?”

“Yes.”

“A white middle-aged American man walking around San Francisco with his his white middle-aged American sorrows?”

“Jesus, I guess so.”

“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”

“Even gay?”

“Even gay.”

As it happens, Less, Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is about a middle-aged gay white American who is going around the world with, you know, his sorrows. The protagonist will learn, a little later in the story, to salvage his latest novel by treating its hero pretty much as Greer has treated him. Nothing redeems self-indulgent sorrow — in a spectator’s eyes — like a banana peel. Less’s humiliations are not quite as obvious and crushing as the ones he proposes for his hero (named Swift), but they keep you smiling from page to page. (I especially like the Berlin scenes in which all the natives speak perfectly-rendered English but everything that Less says betrays the clunkiness of his German.) The mishaps are eventually eclipsed by good things that happen to Less, but that Less is too mired in self-pity to recognize as such, for example when he wins a literary prize in Italy and can only attribute it to misjudgment.

The reason why we can’t feel sorry for American white guys anymore is that we have all sat through so many master classes in focused on the relative lack of privileges and advantages enjoyed by everyone else. We have begun to suspect that white guys suffer existential crises because they don’t have to worry about material ones. Things could always be so, so much worse for the white American male — but they probably won’t be. The white American male will never have to worry about driving while black or having their turbans pulled off by Islamophobes. They will have scores of opportunities — in the unlikely event that they would need them — to avoid the grim calculations of an underpaid mother desperate to feed, clothe, and shelter her children. And so on. It is impossible to feel sorry for guys like them unless you imagine that they are the only people who count, and we can’t do that anymore. 

But you end up feeling sorry for Less anyway. What I mean by this is that, once Less puts his malaise behind him and abandons his surrender to self-doubt, you’re so happy for him that you must have been worried all along.

On a completely unrelated note, Less is a delicious parody of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

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