For bestselling novelist Andrew Sean Greer, Less represents a grand departure in more ways than one.
“I was writing another book that was my typical style,” says the author of five preceding fictions, including The Path of Minor Planets and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, “sort of poignant, sort of wistful. And I was getting nowhere with it, because I couldn’t feel sorry for the main character.”
The main character was a middle-aged gay man on a walking tour of present-day San Francisco, contemplating his failures in life and love and beginning to face his own mortality. Greer, 46, who lives mostly in San Francisco, says he intended to write something serious, sensual, and tragic, “a Collette novel, but with gay men.” But the process was, frankly, depressing.
“Instead of wallowing with him,” he says, “I wanted to make fun of the things that he goes through. It’s the flip side of the same [misfortunes]—realizing that you’re the problem, you’re the fool. It was very liberating for me, personally, to be able to write that way, and I had so much fun doing it.”
Kirkus reached Greer via Skype in Liguria, Italy, where he lives part-time. After a long day of swimming with family, he had the sparkling sea behind him, a glass of cool blush wine before him, and plans to dine on fresh pasta and grilled shrimp at a local restaurant.
“In somewhat ironic comic mode,” he says, “in leaving America, I could somehow liberate myself from the bad novel I was afraid I was going to write—that I was certain to write.”
When Greer liberated Arthur Less from the confines of San Francisco, Less went from the sober story of a broken heart to a lively comedy in seven cultures. In the revised version, Less is a failed novelist just shy of his 50th birthday when his younger lover, Freddy Pelu, leaves their affectionate arrangement of nine years for a full commitment with another man.
In fairness to Freddy, Less’ response to his parting query, “You want me to stay here with you forever?” leaves a lot to be desired:
Less looked at his lover, a nd perhaps a series of images flashes through his mind—a tuxedo jacket, a Paris hotel room, a rooftop party—or perhaps what appeared was just the snow blindness of panic and loss. A dot-dot-dot message related from his brain that he chose to ignore. Less leaned down and gave Freddy a long kiss. Then he pulled away and said, “I can tell you used my cologne.”
Mere months later, Less is cordially invited to the wedding of Federico Pelu and Thomas Dennis, and it’s the social quandary of the season. He can’t bear to attend, risk being a curiosity, and wind up the laughingstock of the open bar; but he can’t decline without reason. So Less ably invents seven reasons by accepting all the invitations a minor novelist typically declines: to fly to New York City and appear “in conversation” with successful sci-fi author H.H.H. Mandern (unpaid); to Mexico City for a panel discussion on the poetry of Robert Brownburn, his famous former partner; to Turin for a prestigious Italian literary award ceremony (juried by high school students); to teach a course on a subject of his choosing at the Liberated University of Berlin (he calls it “Read like a Vampire, Write like Frankenstein”); to Morocco to round out the birthday caravan of a friend of a friend; to India for a writer’s retreat at his rival’s resort; and, finally, to Japan to write an article on traditional kaiseki cuisine for an in-flight magazine.
“And during this odyssey, he was certain he would not think about Freddy Pelu at all,” Greer writes.
Less represents a bevy of firsts for Greer: it’s a comic novel, dealing primarily with gay characters and their issues, set entirely in the present day, and not heavily researched in a library archive. The research consisted of traveling around the world, to every place on its protagonist’s itinerary, while adhering to two cardinal rules.
“One was that I could not put in any detail that I had not seen myself,” he says of the countries he visited. “So I kept notebooks and constantly wrote down that flower, that door, that thing, because what I didn’t want to do was go to a foreign country and come back and invent it—that’s terrible. Only if I saw a monkey could I put in a monkey, and only that monkey.
“The second rule that I made for myself was that the joke had to be on [Less],” he says. “The joke couldn’t be on the people in the country he’s visiting. They’re doing fine—he’s the thing that’s out of place.”
While the jokes may technically be on Less, they’re occasionally at their author’s expense. As savvy readers will surely spot, Greer fictionalizes his original manuscript for Less’ folly.
“But this next book!” Greer writes. “This is the one! It is called Swift (to whom the race does not go): a peripatetic novel. A man on a walking tour of San Francisco, and of his past, returning home after a series of blows and disappointments (‘All you do is write gay Ulysses,’ said Freddy); a wistful, poignant novel of a man’s hard life. Of broke, gay middle age. And today, at dinner, surely over champagne, Less will get the good news.”
The character’s bright blue suit, too, is a personal gift from the author: years ago he had one made to measure by a tailor in Vietnam, who forbade him from purchasing linen (too wrinkly) but acquiesced to the then-outrageous color. (“Now, unfortunately, I’ve noticed this shade of blue is very much in style,” he says.) The emblem proved perfect for a man who’s artless yet graceful.
“I gave the suit to [Less] because it seemed to sum him up perfectly,” Greer says. “It’s a foolish thing to wear, but he doesn’t know it, so it actually comes across as confident.
“He’s a lovable, sentimental buffoon,” he says, “somewhat childlike, without a child’s cruelty but with a child’s illusions about the world. His problem, and why he makes mistakes, is because he’s sure everything’s going to go according to his idea of how things should be, despite all evidence, and it isn’t that way at all. And yet, he makes it through just fine, he’s never really punished for it. As long as he can swallow the humiliation, he gets through and wins.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.