Barb bought me Less by Andrew Sean Greer for my birthday last month, and it has been waiting patiently until I had a chance to pick it up about a week ago. Less comes with obvious recommendations, having won the Pulitzer Prize, and I was looking forward to reading it.
It is a great book, certainly deserving of all the praise. The essential story is that Arthur Less is an author about to turn 50 who goes on an around the world tour after having his heart broken. It’s funny and charming and sad and funny and ultimately the kind of book that stays with you.
Reading Less was a very interesting experience. I enjoyed the entire book. As I was cruising through the first 90%, I was entertained and very satisfied. The story moves along well and was constantly compelling. Note that the trip-around-the-world frame is almost unbeatable because it provides access to a wide selection of exotic locales and people, because it by nature gives the story momentum, and because it is the perfect backdrop for a character whose deeper voyage is to explore himself.
So the first 90% was really good. I was, however, reading it and thinking in the back of my mind that as good as the book is, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that wins Pulitzer Prizes.
And then in the last 10%, Greer gives us magic. I’ve read books like this before, though I can’t remember an example. The last ten pages of Less are a literary explosion. They open your head up and you see vistas of open water and you hear cool breezes. The previous pages, where the reader was on a pleasure cruise down a canal, now come back to life and are experienced again in a single burst. The book is transcendent.
When you are finished, you understand the awards. The writing is brilliant. The ability–the control–to carry a reader along with a deft touch, entertaining and even delighting them while resisting the urge to unleash the crescendo, that’s an incredible piece of storytelling. It’s a huge gamble. If the end isn’t a crescendo, the book is merely good or even worse. The mastery to set that trap for yourself and then escape is brilliant. It’s a gift to the reader.
A couple other notes. One thing that literary fiction often loses is the idea of a story. Greer succeeds here. Less is, above all, a story. Even better, it is a simple story. One main character and the moons around him. There are flashbacks, but natural, like you would use if you were telling a story verbally.
Lastly, Greer has a world-class grasp of language. He has a writer’s grasp of detail and the ability to create a sense of place. His visual metaphors are just perfect–novel and accessible at the same time.
This book deserves to be read.