I already knew I wanted to read this book, mainly because it won the Pulitzer prize earlier this year and so much of the media buzz around it was that, as a semi-romantic-comedy, it was unusual for a Pulitzer winner.
Then I saw Greer speak at the National Book Festival. He seemed so warm, and genuine, and yes, funny – but in a very honest and real way. And the book sounded wonderful – it’s about a man who’s turning 50 and decides after a breakup to travel around the world.
But I worried that I heard way too much about the book in Greer’s presentation and the questions he answered from the audience (including one person determined to spoil the ending who was – thankfully – shushed by the crowd). Greer talked a lot about the major themes and issues, even though he didn’t talk about specific events. And clearly there is a lot of him in this story. So as I read it, I had a sense of familiarity throughout the book.
I also worried about too much hype, that I would be disappointed – often when many people say a book is moving, it ends up feeling the opposite to me.
There’s no way of knowing if I would have reacted differently to the book had I gone in knowing nothing about it. I loved it, so it’s kind of a moot point.
What did I love about it? I loved our hero, Arthur Less, for all the things that make him so human. Greer talked about finding him hard to write as a tragic character, because he’s a fairly well-off, fairly successful white male. But he’s also human. He worries about getting old, being alone, how he’s perceived by others, whether he’s been successful and what that even means. Sometimes he worries too much about the wrong things, and sometimes he’s blind to the things that matter. I found him terribly easy to sympathize with.
In his presentation, and in the book, Greer talks about how you only learn how to be young once you get older. And then of course, it’s too late.
“I think the saddest thing in the world is a twenty-five-year-old talking about the stock market. Or taxes. Or real estate, goddamn it! That’s all you’ll talk about when you’re forty. Real estate! Any twenty-five-year-old who says the word refinance should be taken out and shot. Talk about love and music and poetry. Things everyone forgets they ever thought were important. Waste every day, that’s what I say.”
I loved the travel aspect of the story, and this is one thing I appreciated even more after hearing Greer speak. He actually went to all the places in the book, and he said that the physical description of each place was entirely based on his own experiences. He talked about being respectful in the way he wrote about each location.
I especially enjoyed Greer’s writing, which is beautiful and pointed and witty though not laugh-out-loud funny. There’s great joy in the way he writes, which those of us who love words will understand.
As Greer gently pokes fun at our hero, he takes us along for the ride. And I learned something about myself along the way. Learning to laugh at yourself is something I’ve never been good at. I know I take things too seriously, and maybe that’s just who I am. But Less has a simple message at its heart, one I mean to remember – we can face serious things more easily by flipping them around and seeing the humor in them.
“Are we losers?” Swift asks of his lover at the end of their ruined vacation, and Less gleefully adds the response: “Well, baby, we sure ain’t winners.” With a joy bordering on sadism, he degloves every humiliation to show its risible lining. What sport! If only one could do this with life!
It’s not that Arthur Less doesn’t suffer, any more than it’s fair to say that someone who’s white doesn’t have any problems. It doesn’t help to say your problems don’t count – they do. It’s a question of how you handle them and whether you let them overwhelm you.
For me, there’s a really fine line between comedy and sadness. There are plenty of comedic movies that I’ve cried my way through. Maybe it’s my nature to see the tragic in things. Or maybe truly great comedy has to touch our emotions to be funny.
I hope you’ll enjoy Less as much as I did.