Bük Kloob is a series of book reviews loosely related to a book club I started.
For this special edition of Bük Kloob, this is a short paper I wrote for school about the bük Less by Andrew Sean Greer. My assignment was to sell my professor on this book. Here is my pitch.
I sometimes get this strange feeling about life when I look at someone who is young. A teen model or infant commercial actor. One of my nieces or nephews. Your child. The future children you talk about having. They all make me think about what I may not have with them.
I am consumed by how I will never see them as the older versions of themselves. To me, they will be locked in their youth as I only have a finite amount of time with them. This image of them will always be of this certain era of their lives, with me at a form of “my best” and them at a form of their “best.” Yes, I might see them in their thirties. But will I see them in their nineties? No. I will never see what Justin Bieber looks like as he convalesces. I will never see what Amandla Stenberg looks like when she is going gray. I will not know what ails my niece Quincy when she has become golden. Will she be married? Will she have children? Will she think of me and my life and our entangled pasts, presents, and futures?
I can hope so. Life is funny in this way because we are lovingly trapped in (and with) so much time. For me, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking and thinking about how little I have. Life can seem like a to-do list, like there will never be enough space to accomplish everything because the thread at the bottom of the sweater is quickly unraveling to the collar. Soon, there will be nothing. It’s easy to slip into this pattern of thinking.
Arthur Less is a lot like this. The titular character of Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2017 novel, Arthur Less is an aging gay mess, but only when viewed from a certain angle. Less, as he is lovingly called for most of the novel, is the type of person who is stupidly preoccupied with seeing big trees and little trees, evergreen trees and seasonal trees, fruiting trees and flowering trees – but he never sees the giant forest that surrounds him, this lush land that he is discovering for himself. Obviously, this forest is his life and he choses to see every little insignificant moment of green instead of the enveloping loveliness that he has forged through.
Much of this has to do with his writing. By all means, he is a successful writer. Lauded and well known? That he is not. He gets to travel the world, he gets to rub against literary icons, he gets to have his work translated. To him? All he sees are mounting failures, of books being pinned as that of a “bad gay” according to a literary friend in Paris or of the potential boredom they instill by way of a fainting spell in a Berlin nightclub. What Less doesn’t see is that he is doing what so many dream of doing. He is a writer! But, to him, the talent is that he has faked his way to the present. “He has always felt insignificant to these men,” a passage goes midway through the novel. “As superfluous as the extra a in quaalude.”
It also has to do with love. As Less travels the world (Such is the conceit of the novel: Less traveling the world for a mixture of work, vacation, and escaping the marriage of a former love.), he finds himself constantly confronted with the serious relationships he did and did not have. Much of this comes by way of Robert, his lover of many years who happens to be a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. The two consciously uncoupled years prior and Less has been left with less love. He did have a relationship with the young Freddy Pelu, he did have many a fling around the country, and he even carved in time for best friends to fill in for a long term companion. Everyone seems to come up short for him because, instead of looking at them, he looks at their shadow. Less sees himself as the one who was dumped, the one who got away, or the one who rested his hopes on the relationship of others instead of viewing things as good for when they were good. In love, his glass is half-empty, constantly depleting itself while simultaneously overflowing. He can’t even see his own gushing cherry blossoms in his forest.
But the center of Less is life, of its ebullience regardless of the highs or lows. The book is a lesson on momentary living, of being present, of looking up and out instead of down and behind you. Whether it is Less’s clinging to his cerulean custom suit that defines him or his faded youthful looks by way of silly tension bands that go unused or his telling a lover that they’re “too old to think they’ll meet again,” Less’s worldview is entangled in never seeing the joy in what he has. This is what Greer is teaching readers through this tragi-romantic-comedy that leans heavily into comedy: love and lean into the pretty presence that we are given.
The center of the personal rising tension throughout the 250 or so pages is Less’s obsession with his turning fifty. He sees it as the end of the world, unable to find anything of the past five decades worth his time. This is a shame, many point out to him, a fact that a friend highlights in relationship to the main character’s dismay in the end of a long relationship. “Twenty years of joy and support and friendship, that’s a success,” the friend says. “Twenty years of anything with another person is a success.” This is what Less doesn’t see, what his little gay writing life precludes him from: seeing a future, finding a life. Living.
Less is in his own way the titular character of The Odyssey as told through contemporary gay men. He is given challenge after challenge to find himself only to find himself in other people. Pair this with a very clever frame (or, really, the rare positive and uplifting “unreliable” narrator) and you have a thoroughly readable, highly accessible novel devoted to life and love – with the emphasis on the life. It’s a romance to you and me and itself. It’s a praising of life.
To look at the young, to see those who are now only knee-high, it’s easy to see them as locked in amber. They have so much, you think. I’ll never get all of them. But why not reframe that, to see them as they are, to understand that they see you as you are? That is one of the many lessons of Less: soak in the presence. Absorb it with the bright blue cloth that is your life. You only get so much of it. Enjoy while you can.