Our June pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This” is Andrew Sean Greers comic novel “Less.” Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
At the heart of Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Less” is the question of who is really narrating the book (though the reader does not realize this at the start). The comic novel follows the adventures and misadventures of a failed writer named Arthur Less who travels around the world to avoid an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, and manages to find himself along the way.
Below, Greer annotates a page of “Less” that hinges on the narrator’s identity (spoiler alert) and the book’s central heartbreak. In his annotations, Greer also talks about how he established the novel’s unique voice and humor, and why he sometimes tries to disorient the reader.
Whatever it is—Less never learned it. By his forties, all he has managed to grow is a gentle sense of himself, akin to the transparent carapace of a soft-shelled crab. A mediocre review or careless slight can no longer harm him, but heartbreak, real true heartbreak, can pierce his thin hide and bring out the same shade of blood as ever. How can so many things become a bore by middle age—philosophy, radicalism, and other fast foods—but heartbreak keeps its sting? Perhaps because he finds fresh sources for it. Even foolish old fears have never been vanquished, only avoided: telephone calls (frenetically dialing like a man decoding a bomb), taxicabs (fumbling the tip and leaping out as from a hostage situation), and talking to attractive men or celebrities at parties (still mentally rehearsing his opening lines, only to realize they are saying their good-byes). He still has these fears, but the passage of time solved them for him. Texting and email saved him from phones forever. Credit card machines appeared in taxis. A missed opportunity could contact you online. But heartbreak—how can you avoid it except to renounce love entirely? In the end, that is the only solution Arthur Less could find.
Perhaps it explains why he gave nine years to a certain young man.
I have neglected to mention that he has, on his lap, a Russian cosmonaut’s helmet.
But now a bit of luck: from the world outside the lobby, a chime rings out, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, causing Arthur Less to pop out of his seat. Look at him: staring at his betrayer, the clock, then running to the front desk and asking—at last—the essential temporal question.
“I don’t understand how you could think I was a woman.”
“You are such a talented writer, Mr. Less. You tricked me! And what are you carrying?”
“This? The bookstore asked me to—”
“I loved Dark Matter. There is a part that reminded me of Kawabata.”
“He’s one of my favorites! The Old Capital. Kyoto.”
“I am from Kyoto, Mr. Less.”
“Really? I’ll be there in a few months—”
“Mr. Less. We are having a problem…”