HHave you ever been on a holiday where you spend the whole time coveting your companion’s book? A few years ago, I spent a long weekend in France with a friend who smirked and hooted each time she picked up Less by Andrew Sean Greer, a satirical novel about a globetrotting “minor American novelist” who will attend any minor literary event in order to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. I was making my way through a piece of experimental prose about chemical castration that I was reviewing, casting envious glances from my sunlounger.
So when I heard that Greer had sent his hapless hero, Arthur Less, “Sancho Panza-ing” across the US for a sequel, I chucked both books in the suitcase, convinced I’d guaranteed myself hours of thigh-slapping, slack- jawed glee My friend, I should add, was not alone in her verdict. Less won the 2018 Pulitzer prize for fiction (the competition included George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo) and has been hailed by Armistead Maupin and David Sedaris in the most ecstatic terms.
I wouldn’t say a double dose of Less’s literary peregrinations ruined my summer holiday. But the experience of reading Greer’s prose was not unlike watching my friend laugh at it. I just didn’t get what was so funny. Nor was I charmed by the clueless protagonist, a man who believes he is “the first homosexual ever to grow old” but who in literary terms is “as superfluous as the extra a in quaalude”.
The sequel (apparently Greer’s agent counseled against writing one) sees our “slapstick, ridiculous, zigzagging queer” set off on an implausible cross-country odyssey after the death of an ex-lover, whose estate serves him with a bill for back rent on the San Francisco apartment where I lived for 10 years. Less than three months to find the money. Cue a scramble from the Californian coast, across the south and back up the eastern seaboard to his native Delaware. Once again, Less attends kooky literary gigs, sits through farcical prize committees and finds himself at the mercy of the science-fiction writer HHH Mandern. Naturally, there is a pug dog called Dolly to contend with, as well as a donkey, a whale and a moose.
As with Less, this voyage of contrived epiphanies is narrated in the putative present by the hero’s younger on-off boyfriend, Freddy Pelu, whose identity was only revealed at the end of the first book. But what starts as a race against the clock becomes a story about parental schisms and forgiveness. Mandern is searching for his estranged daughter; Less is being pursued by his long-lost German father. But even when we learn about Less being abandoned in childhood, the melancholy of the novel never feels quite traced to its source.
The problem is that the hero is much less than the sum of his parts: one part Peter Pan, one part Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, one part John Updike’s Henry Bech and a dash of Bertie Wooster. It sounds winsome and fun. It ends up mannered and self-satisfied (a common strain in North American liberal humor, I find: see also, Sedaris, Patrick deWitt, the bits of the New Yorker that set out to be funny). The more Pelu instructed me to “Look at Arthur Less”, the less I could make him out. Our hero’s idiocy – rooted in his incuriosity about other humans – might be funnier were it conveyed with the primal innocence of a Wooster, or told by a more neutral narrator. But from the perspective of an indulgent lover, it’s too self-conscious, too cute – and the constant interludes let too much daylight in on the comedy. As if dawningly aware of this, Greer threads in a narrative about Less unwittingly stealing opportunities that should have gone to a Black writer and his namesake. But it feels tacked on; a message about white male privilege in order to justify reprising his hero.
As a gentle literary satire, Less Is Lost sometimes hits the mark. I tittered at the prize committee (“This prize is not for those kids who win everything just for putting pussy in the first paragraph”, one judge rants) and smiled at the director of a theater company: “I am sure you have heard of our six-hour performance of To the Lighthouse (I myself played the Lighthouse) and our eight-hour performance of Gravity’s Rainbow (I myself played the Rainbow).”
But the good gags end up buried under all the pointless pratfalls and improbable pickles. It’s like opening an overstuffed suitcase to find there’s little here you really need.
Less Is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To support the guardian and observe order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply