In matters of heart and in the world, our protagonist finds himself wandering a second time. Less is Lost, the sequel to writer Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-winning novel Less, follows him determined to meet America, and perhaps have a chance encounter with himself. Journeying is risky business. Who knows where you will end up? No place is the same as one leaves it; no land more alien than one that you have an imaginary picture of. And this is to say nothing of the voyages that physical dislocation sets the mind free for.
It then makes sense that Greer returns to the charming story of Arthur Less with a travel plan that mimics the one in its prequel in its latent ambitiousness, if not motive. Less ended with Arthur Less, the protagonist, reunited with his lover Freddy Pelu – the hopes of avoiding whose impending marriage had initially set him off on a world tour of sorts and put the book’s plot in motion.
A crisis of the heart
Less is Lost picks up nine months of “unmarital bliss” after, the air crisp with another crisis of the heart. Arthur’s first great love, the poet Robert Brownburn, dies, leaving behind not just emotional turbulence but also the looming threat of possible eviction: Less must make up for the ten years of rent for that he had had no reason to worry about while Robert was still alive.
Meanwhile, Freddy is teaching a course in narrative form in Maine, contemplating with some alarm the rapid pace of change in their relationship. The scramble to put together the money that will save their little sanctuary puts a bender in their plans of Arthur joining him in Maine, and the distance between them soon becomes space – difficult to measure, fertile for doubt.
To put together the money, Arthur agrees to the somewhat dodgy series of events arranged by his agent. At the back of his mind also is the time an European author regarded with contempt Arthur’ myopic understanding of America, asking him if he had ever paused to consider that the entire “idea might be wrong?” This encounter leaves Arthur tongue-tied, for arbitrating America’s success as an idea would have to be premised on another question – is it real? Not to him, anyway, if he were being honest. So he sets out to really know America, funky bandanas and all.
Hilarity ensues. There are eccentric writers, vehicles with personalities of their own, and a show that literally needs to get on the road. There is also the past, a foereign country of its own.
The register of Greer’s writing is attuned to the rhythms of emotional experience so closley that even the scene-to-scene change in tone creates momentum, not whiplash. When America and love both turn out to be slippery concepts, Arthur keeps on, though we begin to notice the facades slowly crumble. But on the page, through his affectionate narrator, Greer makes even the sombre realisations dance.
His father, for example, who had abandoned their family when Arthur was still a child, seems set to make a return, though there are no specifics about when and where this appearance might be. Arthur expects to find this release from having a script ready when they meet liberating, but inside him, of course, lives the memory of a childhood cut short by the heartbreak. Moments before any show starts, he catches himself scanning the audience for a familiar face.
It is in moments of tenderness like these that Greer’s control over a scene shines: giddily building up, sentence by sentence, to a climax where he suddenly lowers the tempo and stops you in your tracks with a paragraph like this: “What do we want from the past, anyway? For it to trifle with us no longer?....But the past is like a jellyfish that, when harmed, coil into themselves and revert to immature blobs from which they begin new lives and become, in simple terms, immortal. What can we do but look away from such painful miracles?”
A perfect balance between cynicism and lightness
What is gained for the heart, however, is lost for the land. For a book so deeply committed to making sense of America – the idea and the phantom – the omission of any real politics in Less is Lost is notable. As Arthur travels the vast expanse of American landscape, he meets people varied and wild, but their peculiarities serve simply as wells of comic relief, and not glimpses into the political worldviews they inspire. Asking what European country Arthur is from, for example, is a shorthand for asking if he is gay, but he does not mind; he simply starts to notice how his fellow residents of Netherlands navigate their nationalities. You would not be able to tell that it was a country constituted by violence if you knew it only through these characters.
But it is perhaps this commitment to seeing some essential good in people that makes the comedic tone work. Some sequences are laugh out loud funny – when Arthur, for example, ends up in Arizona commune whose motto is “know no no” and despite an almost identity-defining aversion to causing trouble, gets himself expelled. Where there isn’t laughter, the book hands you an unexpected smile; moments of lightness infuse the narrative.
The sense of possibility – of life, of wholeness – is the beating heart of the book, its gravity holding in motion a cacophonous universe of characters who pop in and out of Arthur’s orbit. It is not the same brand of overbearing cheer that charges on you from the folds of greeting cards; it is certainly not some grand belief in love changing the world. Instead, Greer strikes with panache a balance between a cynicism of love realised in its perfection with a belief that it could something more. It could be all.
Ultimately, Less is Lost is a strong case for stories – even those written by white, middle-aged, gay authors of moderate success, and especially those featuring them. In some moments, it is a commentary on the the elements that make up its narrative whole, such as the publishing world, which, “like an orbiting space station, looks upon the rest of America without ever interacting with it.” In others, it is an attempt to make sense and to suspend logic, to despair and to live – all at once.
Less is Lost, Andrew Sean Greer, Little, Brown and Company.