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This year’s Pulitzer Winner for Fiction is a laugh-out-loud novel about midlife crisis

Andrew Sean Greer's 'Less' is about a gay writer going through grim adventures on the eve of turning 50

Andrew Sean Greer charms the reader with his light touch. Photo: AFP
Andrew Sean Greer charms the reader with his light touch. Photo: AFP

Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year, is that rare thing: a funny, entertaining read, selected for a major international award. Its dominant themes are not really cheerful though: an ageing, heartbroken gay writer; the circus that drives contemporary publishing; and the fear of obscurity that must plague anyone with creative ambitions.

Greer’s “hero", who is anything but heroic, is the eponymous Arthur Less, a 49-year-old American writer on a mission to heal his seriously jilted ego. His much younger lover, Freddy Pelu, has opted for marriage and monogamy, after having an affair with Less for close to a decade. Their relationship, always hovering between serious and casual, never quite graduated to “the next level".

Survivor of a generation nearly wiped out by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and never having recovered from being ditched by another long-term lover, Less, mockingly true to his name, is less and less certain of everything he expects from life as he grows older. He doesn’t have the courage to embrace the very thing he longs for, even as it is laid right under his nose by the object of his affection.

As a prelude to announcing his wedding plans, Freddy does pop the question to Less, albeit guardedly: “You want me to stay here with you forever?" The moment, which could have changed their lives but not given us this wonderful book, is lost in more frivolous banter. As if the loss of Freddy wasn’t dire enough, Less fails to sell his new novel to his publisher, the one who had promised him undying loyalty while acquiring his first book.

Smarting under these twin betrayals, Less seeks consolation in travel, all-expenses-paid and rich with (mis)adventures, by agreeing to appear in a series of events across the globe: Mexico, Italy, Germany, India, Morocco, with a detour via France. He hopes this journey will lead him into the fifties with more wisdom, fortitude and dignity than he has mustered so far. There are near-love situations along the way, embarrassments galore, and surprises pleasant enough for Less to feel cautiously optimistic about life.

Greer’s prose is irresistibly charming. Not only does he pull off hilarious scenes with an enviable degree of control, he also mines their satirical possibilities acutely. Especially amusing is his take on the literary circuit: the trends in the publishing industry that keep moving like the weathervane and of whimsical festival organizers, smug in their confidence of being the arbiters of success.

Above all, Greer pulls off the near impossible: He makes us feel sorry for “a white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows" (to steal Less’ description of the protagonist of his own rejected novel). How many books can claim such distinction in these times, when most literary novels would rather stay away from such characters?

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