If you think life is hard, imagine what it’s like to be the sequel to a beloved novel. Your time on earth is a foregone conclusion. You know you will be judged by fans with every turn of the page, compared mercilessly with your illustrious predecessor and—almost always—found wanting. Your whole life is riddled with performance anxiety, a long struggle to justify your existence.
Andrew Sean Greer’s Less Is Lost, the sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Less, may seem doomed to suffer this fate but it redeems itself honourably, despite its flaws. The 50-something protagonist, Arthur Less—a white, gay, American writer who will never reach the stars—returns for another quixotic adventure.
In Less, he was a globetrotting author, hopping from one lit fest to another to heal his broken heart. In Less Is Lost, he sets out on a whirlwind cross-country tour of America with the sole purpose of earning money—or else, risk homelessness.
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It’s a typical “Lessian moment” (the term really deserves to become more mainstream), a crisis that’s urgent and critical. It’s a matter of survival, dignity, and, worst of all, love. Less must hustle all he can to save face before his (younger and more handsome) lover, Freddy Pelu. Their relationship status, we learn early on, is “Uncertain”—an ominous word that hangs over the rest of the novel.
Less Is Lost lends itself to multiple levels of reading. At its most obvious, it is a farcical romp through the absurdities of the Deep South. It has a colourful cast of characters with eccentric backstories, plenty of good jokes, and some that don’t quite land. On another level, Greer is telling the story of a white American man—a deeply unfashionable species in these woke times—returning to his roots to confront the reality of Trumpism. Then there is a strain of fine melancholy that runs through its pages, lending an operatic loftiness to certain scenes.
But, most of all, Less Is Lost stands out for telling the story of a 21st-century gay protagonist as an ordinary, fallible man—who is neither the hero of a rom-com with a happy ending, nor the tragic sufferer of discrimination and social oppression.
The story of Less Is Lost is the story of so many of us—getting older but not much wiser, losing exes and reckoning with our own mortality, learning to forgive our parents, and moving on.
As a gay man who came of age during the AIDS epidemic, Less has the added challenge of keeping up with the twists and turns of identity politics. As a “bad gay”, he must find his way through a brave new world of pronouns and gender fluidity. He must accept his lot in society.
Less Is Lost doesn’t leave its hero in any better place, or shape, than its predecessor. In the end, Less is still the misfit who gets mixed up in implausible confusions; he is the eternally jilted writer with flickering success; an insecure lover who finds it hard to believe himself worthy of another man’s adoration. But beyond it all, he is an artist who never misses the tiniest detail, especially the odd bits. To quote one of the characters, Less is always keenly aware that “we’re all having different experiences”.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.
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