Did “Less” Need More?: On Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less Is Lost”

LESS IS LOST is Andrew Sean Greer’s follow-up to his 2017 novel Less, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That book told the story of Arthur Less, a slightly prim, very accident-prone gay man who tries to avoid his 50th birthday — and the impending wedding of his former lover — by taking a series of speaking engagements abroad. The result is a medley of cross-cultural confusion and high-powered comic brilliance. Less Is Lost promises to repeat this journey on American soil. But where Less was a delightful confection of missed connections and bungled translations, its successor is a slower, bumpier ride. Arthur has his adventures, but he gets bogged down in the mud of the past.

Less Is Lost has all the makings of a hilarious road trip. The cornflake-colored cover shows its blue-suited hero in a field, cosplaying American Gothic. The first stop is Palm Springs, California. But the obvious roads are, for the most part, not taken. Fans of the first novel may be disappointed, as Arthur avoids the expected pitstops — Mormons, Vegas — and instead means into New Mexico and onto the fringes of Indian reservations. Both Arthur and this reader, I was appalled to realize, are now several years older. People are sick; people have died. This is a sadder book. Yet as Greer valiantly charts our absurdly varied continent, his innovative narration makes some powerful advances on the original.

Less ended by staging Arthur’s surprise reunion with his former lover, Freddy Pelu. Less Is Lost finds Arthur at home in San Francisco, Freddy on his way to Maine. While some of the setups for Arthur’s trip east are clunky — various literary engagements and something about a book prize — the plot plays out satisfyingly enough. Continuity with the previous novel proves more cumbersome at the level of narration. Less adopted a stance of benign omniscience and loving commentary. At the end of the book, we learned that the tender gaze cast towards its hapless protagonist was Freddy’s all along. But in Less Is Lost, the narrator role is Freddy’s from the outset. This makes a certain sense, but it also clos up the book’s opening with his uninteresting — or, at any rate, undeveloped — perspective.

If we lose some of the original novel’s cosmic irony, Less Is Lost proves, if anything, even more adept at steering between past and present. The use of the present tense in fiction has attracted the ire of some self-proclaimed curmudgeons who would rather that stories remain within the conventional past tense. Yet there may not ultimately be much difference in thematic gravitas or simulated immediacy between the two. Aside from its other charms, Greer’s use of the present tense accentuates one of the form’s notable benefits. Regressions to an earlier moment in time are typically marked off in fiction with a single “had,” only to proceed in the same past tense as the main narration. But present-tense stories locate memory fragments and extended flashbacks on a starkly different plane: in a past perfect that commands its own fictional present.

As Arthur wends his way into the Southeast, he encounters a string of regional theaters and dive bars inhabited by a variety of Blanche Devereauxes. But if there are shades of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in this road trip along the queer Dust Belt, Proust is also along for the ride. Arthur comes face to face with his past in the guise of his absent, uncaring father, now the kind of old that “you’d never guess he’d been young.” Their rapprochement, complete with cancer and crocodiles, is beautifully drawn. The imprint of the past is even sharper here than in Less, where a Japanese model garden summons images of his mother. These lost remnants rise up in all their shimmering, apparitional beauty.

Less was about an aging gay man finding his next act. Less Is Lost strays into sometimes banal territory: residual homophobia, relationship ambivalence. Where Andrew Holleran populates his novels about gay aging with an assortment of queer ducks, Greer’s hero can risk seeming a mere fish out of water. But Greer’s long-standing interest in time and memory — his 2003 novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli is the anguished chronicle of a man aging in reverse — pays continued dividends here. When a freak storm assails our hero’s camper van, queer longing and gay death, past and present, and memory and apocalypse miraculously converge:

Arthur Less stars out at the nothingness and hears the rain, drumming like a heavy metal band with eternal encores, louder and louder, and realizes that he is not going to die from heartbreak or a bad father or bad reviews, as he has always imagined ; not from AIDS or cardiac arrest or cancer or an auto accident (as the actuaries would have it); not from shame or humiliation or arrogance; not from cocaine or meth or mushrooms; not from Twinkies or Spam or cigarettes or any of the hubristic excesses of homosexual American living — he is going to die from this.

Greer can be at his most dazzling in minute character sketches, especially of women. I was touched by Arthur’s phone calls to his sister, which spins their childhood trauma and her acuteing seizures into a sprightly banter — a nice counterpart to the sparring that binds self-involved gay men and their sisters in Grant Ginder’s novels. During a superlative scene in a Southern gay bar, the barmaid suddenly interrupts Arthur’s self-conscious reverie when she notices his adopted pet: “Is that the cutest fucking dog in the world?In another of the book’s best scenes, Arthur finds himself on a former slave plantation that unnervingly doubles as a Christmas market. As Gwen, the African American tour guide, leads the visit through the site, she adopts the second-person to address the assembled visitors: “[A]ll day long, we worked in your cotton fields.” A visitor translating in French for her companion is stopped in her tracks. As the story proceeds, there are further attempts to emphasize Arthur’s whiteness, and to stage further encounters with Blackness, culminating in a race-crossing plot twist that is just, well, weird. I found myself wishing Greer had stuck with Gwen and her deftly drawn reminder that the past is never past.

Less was rightly lauded by the Pulitzer committee for its musical prose. Less Is Lost has more than occasional swerves into tweeness and what can only be called a kind of self-pasche (the sky is at one point described as a “Lessian“shade of blue!). But Greer’s throwaway brilliance, never far away, emerges especially in his depictions of an American landscape populated by “Chaplinesque puffins” and a “rowdy bachelorette party of mosquitoes that raided the human open bar.” Greer’s quicksilver prose shimmers more than ever here, with “black palm trees tossing their shaggy hair before a dimly glowing sky” and society women shifting from “ragged troubadours to sequined selkies.” If the slapstick falls a bit flat, that has to do, in part, with the broad canvas Greer adopts here. Road trips across the United States tend to be more fun in theory than in practice.

Asked by his foreign agent about “the problem with American writers,” Arthur wryly responds, “Commas.” There is no grand ambition for our “Minor American Novelist”: Arthur just wants to keep hold of his man (or, at least, their apartment). But as the book zipped its way through the Northeast, I realized that its steadily accreting landscapes and shuffling cast of characters had captured at least some of this continent-spanning nation’s soul. The United States (and “existence” in general), Arthur touchingly concludes, is protagonists “all the way down.” “What could be more normal,” he wonders, “than to be out of place everywhere you go? What could be more American?”

The odyssey ends, as some odysseys do, in Delaware. Arthur makes a final pit stop with his sister; they recall working at a Pilgrim-themed restaurant (“Good morn, Goody Less!”). Folding chairs with beer holders become luminous under the moon. Freddy has his own moving encounters on uncharted Northeastern shorelines. Amtrak tickets are purchased, and some losses are redeemed. It’s less clear what has been gained, though. Do we need this second outing? Does Less need more? Probably not. But the better question is a different one: does Arthur get his next act? That question proves no easier to answer for this book than for its predecessor, no clearer here than in real life. But it comes beautifully packaged: with gifts and losses, fresh encounters and former selves. And America glitters in at least some of its queer, confounding glory.

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John Havard teaches at the State University of New York, Binghamton. His essays on literature and politics have appeared in Avidly, The New Ramblerand Public Books.

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