Print Edition - 2019-04-20  |  On Saturday

When less is more

  • Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is too empathetic and clever a book, but it is often too smug in its own beauty and ingenuity.
- Richa Bhattarai

Apr 20, 2019-

A failing, disgruntled, middle-aged writer travels the world to forget his beloved, and finds love again where he least expects it. Nothing unique about the concept. Eat Pray Love has familiarised everyone to this journey of self-discovery, where the mind and heart travel as much as the limbs. There are countless other works of fiction and memory, peppered with unexpected quests and semi-surprising discoveries.

The difference, in Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less, is his indulgence of words. Or rather, how the words tend to indulge him, and are ready to be petted and moulded into any shape he chooses. His descriptions are vivid, forming connotations and associations, opening up and unfurling until the scene comes alive before your eyes. Greer takes ‘show, don’t tell’ very, very seriously.

This is how we are introduced to the protagonist: “Look at the thinning hair at the crown of his head, the rapid blink of his eyes. Look at his boyish faith.” So intimate and detailed, talking of the appearance and soul at once, painting Arthur Less as a normal human being, with his fallacies and naiveties. It is a refreshing change from other protagonists who are either too perfect to be true, or just useless lumps of clay that whimper to be ‘saved’. Another time, Less is portrayed even less flatteringly: “pink to his middle, gray to his scalp, like those old double erasers for pencil and ink.” Towards the end, he becomes “lined and weary, old and broke.”

These descriptions make this a shapeshifter of a novel, with words morphing into a street, a thought, a memory, a person, a sunset from 10 years ago. There is absolute attention paid to one particular detail for the time being. This exquisite and rare command over language will catch readers by surprise, a skill that must be inborn, to twist words into sensation-invoking shapes and beings.

Take, for example, this description of Less’s one great love, Freddy: “How do I describe him? Big eyes, with brown sun-streaked hair and a truculent demeanour in those days, he refused to eat vegetables or to call Carlos anything but Carlos.” Succinct and very alive. Or the portrayal of these youngsters: “A composer named Ulrich, whose brown eyes and saggy beard give him the alert appearance of a schnauzer, his girlfriend, Katarina, similarly canine in her Pomeranian puff of hair, and Bastian, a business student whose dark good looks and voluminous kinky hairstyle make Less assume he is African.”

The style and rhythm of Greer’s words never grows old. In his world, people have a “sequined laugh” and carry on with “vegetables of small talk.” A plane’s turbulence cannot be described with an everyday trope, because it feels like “a man turning into a werewolf”, and only that particular phrase will suffice.

There is plenty of pithy humour, intimate asides and comebacks that entertain. This observation on New York could not be more accurate, or funnier: “New York is a city of eight million people, approximately seven million of whom will be furious when they hear you were in town and didn’t meet them for an expensive dinner, five million furious you didn’t visit their new baby, three million furious you didn’t see their new show, one million furious you didn’t call for sex, but only five actually available to meet you.” There’s also a lot of pun-making going on with Less’s name, which might get a tad too repetitive, but is still clever and amusing.

And beneath all these words, of course, is Less, unsure and uncomfortable and often, unwanted. Less’s loneliness, his awkwardness and private fear of the world outside is painful to watch at first. Gradually, his demeanour settles itself on the reader like a heavy coat one is forced to drag along everywhere. It is sometimes too sad, and yet it feels good, especially towards the end.

Less is quite pitiful, and he isn’t particularly likeable either. He is, in essence, every one of us, struggling to get on with our loves and lives. And this is where he connects with a majority of readers—we can just see all of our weaknesses reflected in this character. His attempts at teaching a German class are comical, his winning of an award gratifying. Here is a character that demands investment, an intimacy and bonding that arouses a warm, fuzzy, almost protective feeling.

So it is easy to understand why so many people love this book, and why it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But it is a novel that is equally easy to not love, because nothing much actually takes place, except for a 50-year-old self-deprecating writer’s humdrum holiday. Nothing really happens—it is the classic quest without a cause. It is too empathetic and clever a book, but it is often too smug in its own beauty and ingenuity. Much like the GPS of a car that Less is driving, which—“after giving crisp, stern directions to the highway, becomes drunk in its own power outside the city limits, then gives out completely and places Arthur Less in the sea of Japan.” And yet, words melt and ooze and re-form in a masterful, aesthetic sequence that will have you reading till the very end. It is soothing and humorous, cantankerous and upbeat, and above all, melodious.

Published: 20-04-2019 10:16

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