It is a bad musical, but, like a bad lay, a bad musical can still do its job perfectly well. By the end, Arthur Less is in tears, sobbing in his seat, and he thinks he has been sobbing quietly until the lights come up and the woman seated beside him turns and says, “Honey, I don’t know what happened in your life, but I am so so sorry,” and gives him a lilac-scented embrace. Nothing happened to me, he wants to say to her. Nothing happened to me. I’m just a homosexual at a Broadway show.
Less is an episodic and satirical picaresque tale about an almost-fifty gay author who concludes that the best way to avoid lovelorn misery is a literature and food-fueled trip around the world. The narrative weaves compelling dialogues and intriguing character plots to bring to the reader a naked view into the life of Arthur Less.
Arthur Less is oftentimes self-critical and at other times, critical about the literary world and romance in general. The story begins with Less receiving an invitation to the marriage of one of his former lovers, a rather significant lover at that, and Less’s sporadic decision to avoid the wedding by accepting invitations to literary events around the globe. At this time, Less is also working on publishing his novel, one that his publisher does not seem approving of. In a sense, Less and the narrator bring to the reader some absurdities of the writing world – the scores of editors and publishers and how writing takes genius and how Less personifies the protagonist in his novel to portray him. In essence, the reader is witness to an author writing about another author who discusses his own novel and the circles of writers who attend events about writing and why writers must avoid receiving awards- it is both hilarious and strangely sobering coming from a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Through the story, we understand of Less’s past relationships, most significantly his two rather contradictory relationships- One with a genius poet, an older man, Robert, whom Less was in love with for a majority of his life, and the other with a younger man, Freddy- whose wedding Less is avoiding by touring the world and placating his heart with scattered affection spread out among other men.
Unlike the book Eat, Pray, Love the self-discovery aspect of the novel does not seem forced. The protagonist does not venture into the voyage with the intention of changing himself or his opinions on love. Rather, it focuses on how life simply happens while we are busy doing other things; his interactions with men of varying levels of intimacy and humility, his continuous battles against himself about how good an author he is and how good a gay he is, and how pills that can help one course through tediously long aeroplane journeys can induce drowsy philosophy.
Is it the pills that make him so flushed and grotesque? What else do they sell here for middle-aged men? Is there a pill for when the image of a trumpet vine comes into your head? Will it erase it? Erase the voice saying, You should kiss me like it’s good-bye? Erase the tuxedo jacket, or at least the face above it? Erase the whole nine years? Robert would say, The work will fix you. The work, the habit, the words, will fix you. Nothing else can be depended on, and Less has known genius, what genius can do. But what if you are not a genius? What will the work do then?
Spanning through the locations of New York, Mexico City, Germany – where he teaches a course Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein, Paris, Morocco, India and finally the food-inspired trip to Japan, Less is a wanderlust collection of travel inspiration although the protagonist himself isn’t very inclined to visiting famous landmarks that the cities have to offer.
In addition to the journey across continents, Less is invariably about the paths forged by a wandering and hesitant heart. Arthur Less’s contemplation and conclusions on the abstract concept of love is a delight to peruse through. It is miserable, realistic and as a result entirely relatable.
Any narrator would be jealous of this possible love, on this possible night.
I absolutely recommend Less – A remarkably refreshing read that brings all the comfort and capriciousness of home and heartbreak while leaving you with surprising optimism for life.