On the shelf
less is lost
By Andrew Sean Greer
Small, Brown: 272 pages, $29
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In 2011 I attended a writers’ dinner. The best part, aside from the fact that he was on the Amalfi Coast, was that he was sitting next to novelist Andrew Sean Greer, who was tall, handsome, funny, and funny. This is notable for two reasons. First, Greer won the 2018 Pulitzer for “Less,” his comedic novel about a hapless author named Arthur Less that has all of Greer’s worst traits, and none of his best. And second, “Less” covers all the joys and discontents of travel, as does Greer’s new follow-up novel, “less is lost.”
Greer is not an overnight success. His first novel, “The Path of Minor Planets,” received good reviews when it was published in 2001, as did “The Confessions of Max Tivoli” (2004, inspired by Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”). But her real hit, before the Pulitzer, was “A Marriage Story,” about a woman who gets a fateful visit from her husband’s war friend.
However, with “Less” came genuine fame, the kind that gets old and lives forever. And schedules. “I learned that after you win one of these big prizes, you need a year for all the events and commitments,” Greer says, speaking via video link from her apartment in San Francisco. (She divides her time between California and Milan, where her partner, Enrico, lives with her dog, Quo.)
“Less Is Lost” is more of a companion to “Less” than a sequel. Yes, Arthur Less has once again embarked on a journey, and yes, it involves space opera-creating author HHH Mandern, a superbly satirical construct. But this time, our hero has fallen in love, and the purpose of his journey will be to accept that he is worthy of that love.
Like a grand cross-country road trip, our conversation, which is edited for length and clarity, meandered but stayed true to an overarching theme: how travel can open us up to the wonders, fears, divisions, and many layers of the United States. United of America. .
Where did “Less Is Lost” come from for you?
Where does comedy come from? It’s from very, very dark places. When you hit rock bottom, you say, OK, I have to get through this. I can’t stay in it anymore. I have to find another point of view. So “Less Is Lost” started from the 2016 election. When Trump won, I thought, “I don’t understand this country at all. So I’m going to rent a van and go for six weeks to the Southwest and the Deep South and see what I see”.
You actually did this.
yeah Arthur Less only lasts like a week and a half, but I went for six weeks. No big cities. All the small towns. I had to sit at the bar and talk to people. I didn’t have a pug named Dolly with me and I didn’t just have a truck like Arthur. He had three different vans.
What did you find out about America?
I did this trip in 2018, which feels like a world away from where we are now. I understood that everyone was suffering, from the policeman who stopped me for running a stop sign to the owner of a taqueria. The policeman wanted to be in the Marine Corps, but he got a girl pregnant and had to join the police force. The owner of the taqueria made her dreams come true when the owner died and left the restaurant to her. There was the lesbian couple who ran a sandwich shop in rural Alabama, a place they were uncomfortable with but had moved there because a woman’s mother got sick.
It only took a minute for people to tell me the story that was in their hearts. It was so shocking. They were dying to say that which caused them pain. I didn’t put their stories in the book. It is not a book of pain. But it is a book of some empathy. That is the fashion of Arthur Less. He never makes fun of the place he travels to, but the joke is always on him, because he is the thing out of place. That was my rule for this book.
So this is not a political book.
I’m not good at controversy of any kind. I have political ideas, but I’m not good at conveying them in fiction. So I’ve learned to stick to what I’m good at, which is humor and detail and a little push to talk about racial injustice. I didn’t want it to be a book about meeting black people and seeing the light. I wanted less to meet white people and talk about whiteness, to investigate that. I think that’s my job.
Your narrator, Less’s partner Freddy Pelu, is a person of color. Why do we need Freddy as our guiding voice?
Because it’s a good way to distance myself from a character that looks a lot like me. Being able to mock less in a loving way and in that sense mock myself, because if I were writing a character like me in the first person, I would be much harder on myself. And it would be a nasty book, oscillating between pity and self-harm, and it just wouldn’t be lighthearted. Also, Freddy’s voice gives me an omniscient narrator, and when you’re a writer that gives you everything.
Did you, as Freddy, head to the easternmost inhabited island in the US?
I spent three months of the early pandemic stuck in Maine, deliciously stuck, I should say, with the Chabons. [Michael and his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman], who were generous enough to accommodate me. They went away for a weekend and I said, “I’m going to the easternmost inhabited place in the United States, that might be something for the book.” I went, but to Matinicus Island. And when I got to the port, the owner’s caretaker called and said he was too old and sick to have a visitor.
But you took a train ride across the country. How did that affect “Less Is Lost”?
I took a train from San Francisco to Chicago with my mother. Traversing the Rocky Mountains on a train is like a Disney beauty ride. I then went from Chicago to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and was reunited with my father. It sounds pretentious to say it, but I wanted to write a book about the United States that was also a book about my country, where I live, not an idealized version.
But the joy in the journey is palpable. How does it connect to the larger themes of the book?
I was reading a lot of books about the gay experience as suffering and I thought, “This is not my experience.” In fact, my experience is that despite living through the years of AIDS and despite the terrible pain and oppression, the struggle has always been a kind of defiant joy. I haven’t seen that portrayed and I wanted my characters to have an ecstatic experience, with all the little details and fun moments that make you feel alive. I think that’s what makes traveling a pleasure, makes everything feel new. It’s very difficult for me, but I try to stay present and notice what is beautiful and delicious right here in the moment.
Patrick is an independent critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.