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Novel 'Less' Features Hapless Hero And His Journey Around The World

"Less," by Andrew Sean Greer. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Less," by Andrew Sean Greer. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The new novel “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer follows hapless hero Arthur Less as he travels the world in a quest to avoid his his ex-lover’s wedding. The Washington Post called the book “thoroughly delightful.”

Greer (@agreer) joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about “Less.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Less’

By Andrew Sean Greer

From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.

Look at him: seated primly on the hotel lobby’s plush round sofa, blue suit and white shirt, legs knee-crossed so that one polished loafer hangs free of its heel. The pose of a young man. His slim shadow is, in fact, still that of his younger self, but at nearly fifty he is like those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolor beautifully until they match the trees. So has Arthur Less, once pink and gold with youth, faded like the sofa he sits on, tapping one finger on his knee and staring at the grandfather clock. The long patrician nose perennially burned by the sun (even in cloudy New York October). The washed-out blond hair too long on the top, too short on the sides—portrait of his grandfather. Those same watery blue eyes. Listen: you might hear anxiety ticking, ticking, ticking away as he stares at that clock, which unfortunately is not ticking itself. It stopped fifteen years ago. Arthur Less is not aware of this; he still believes, at his ripe age, that escorts for literary events arrive on time and bellboys reliably wind the lobby clocks. He wears no watch; his faith is fast. It is mere coincidence that the clock stopped at half past six, almost exactly the hour when he is to be taken to tonight’s event. The poor man does not know it, but the time is already quarter to seven.

As he waits, around and around the room circles a young woman in a brown wool dress, a species of tweed hummingbird, pollinating first this group of tourists and then that one. She dips her face into a cluster of chairs, asking a particular question, and then, dissatisfied with the answer, darts away to find another. Less does not notice her as she makes her rounds. He is too focused on the broken clock. The young woman goes up to the lobby clerk, then to the elevator, startling a group of ladies overdressed for the theater. Up and down Less’s loose shoe goes. If he paid attention, perhaps he would have heard the woman’s eager question, which explains why, though she asks everyone else in the lobby, she never asks it of him:

“Excuse me, but are you Miss Arthur?”

The problem—which will not be solved in this lobby—is that the escort believes Arthur Less to be a woman.

In her defense, she has read only one novel of his, in an electronic form that lacked a photo, and found the female narrator so compelling, so persuasive, that she was certain only a woman could have written it; she assumed the name to be one of those American gender curiosities (she is Japanese). This is, for Arthur Less, a rare rave review. Little good this does him at the moment, sitting on the round sofa, from whose conical center emerges an oiled palm. For it is now ten minutes to seven.

Arthur Less has been here for three days; he is in New York to interview famous science fiction author H. H. H. Mandern onstage to celebrate the launch of H. H. H. Mandern’s new novel; in it, he revives his wildly popular Holmesian robot, Peabody. In the world of books, this is front-page news, and a great deal of money is jangling behind the scenes. Money in the voice that called Less out of the blue and asked if he was familiar with the work of H. H. H. Mandern, and if he might be available for an interview. Money in the messages from the publicist instructing Less what questions were absolutely off the table for H. H. H. Mandern (his wife, his daughter, his poorly reviewed poetry collection). Money in the choice of venue, the advertisements plastered all over the Village. Money in the inflatable Peabody battling the wind outside the theater. Money even in the hotel Arthur has been take anytime, day or night, you’re welcome. In a world where most people read one book a year, there is a lot of money hoping that this is the book and that this night will be the glorious kickoff. And they are depending on Arthur Less.

And still, dutifully, he watches the stopped clock. He does not see the escort standing woefully beside him. He does not see her adjust her scarf, then exit the lobby through the washing machine of its revolving doors. Look at the thinning hair at the crown of his head, the rapid blink of his eyes. Look at his boyish faith.

Once, in his twenties, a poet he had been talking with extinguished her cigarette in a potted plant and said, “You’re like a person without skin.” A poet had said this. One who made her living flaying herself alive in public had said that he, tall and young and hopeful Arthur Less, was without skin. But it was true. “You need to get an edge,” his old rival Carlos constantly told him in the old days, but Less had not known what that meant. To be mean? No, it meant to be protected, armored against the world, but can one “get” an edge any more than one can “get” a sense of humor? Or do you fake it, the way a humorless businessman memorizes jokes and is considered “a riot,” leaving parties before he runs out of material?

Whatever it is—Less never learned it. By his forties, all he has managed to grow is a gentle sense of himself, akin to the transparent carapace of a soft-shelled crab. A mediocre review or careless slight can no longer harm him, but heartbreak, real true heartbreak, can pierce his thin hide and bring out the same shade of blood as ever. How can so many things become a bore by middle age—philosophy, radicalism, and other fast foods—but heartbreak keeps its sting? Perhaps because he finds fresh sources for it. Even foolish old fears have never been vanquished, only avoided: telephone calls (frenetically dialing like a man decoding a bomb), taxicabs (fumbling the tip and leaping out as from a hostage situation), and talking to attractive men or celebrities at parties (still mentally rehearsing his opening lines, only to realize they are saying their good-byes). He still has these fears, but the passage of time solved them for him. Texting and email saved him from phones forever. Credit card machines appeared in taxis. A missed opportunity could contact you online. But heartbreak—how can you avoid it except to renounce love entirely? In the end, that is the only solution Arthur Less could find.

Perhaps it explains why he gave nine years to a certain young man.

I have neglected to mention that he has, on his lap, a Russian cosmonaut’s helmet.

But now a bit of luck: from the world outside the lobby, a chime rings out, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, causing Arthur Less to pop out of his seat. Look at him: staring at his betrayer, the clock, then running to the front desk and asking—at last—the essential temporal question.

“I don’t understand how you could think I was a woman.”

“You are such a talented writer, Mr. Less. You tricked me! And what are you carrying?”

“This? The bookstore asked me to—”

“I loved Dark Matter. There is a part that reminded me of Kawabata.”

“He’s one of my favorites! The Old Capital. Kyoto.”

“I am from Kyoto, Mr. Less.”

“Really? I’ll be there in a few months—”

“Mr. Less. We are having a problem . . .”

This conversation takes place as the woman in the brown wool dress leads him down a theater hallway. It is decorated with a lone prop tree, the kind the hero hides behind in comedies; the rest is all brick painted glossy black. Less and his escort have run from the hotel to the event space, and he can already feel the sweat turning his crisp white shirt into a transparency.

Why him? Why did they ask Arthur Less? A minor author whose greatest fame was a youthful association with the Russian River School of writers and artists, an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books. Well, Less knows why. It is no mystery. A calculation was made: what literary writer would agree to prepare for an interview and yet not be paid? It had to be someone terribly desperate. How many other writers of his acquaintance said “no chance”? How far down the list did they go before someone said: “What about Arthur Less?”

He is indeed a desperate man.

From behind the wall, he can hear the crowd chanting something. Surely the name H. H. H. Mandern. In the past month, Less has privately gorged on H. H. H. Mandern’s works, those space operettas, which at first appalled him, with their tin-ear language and laughable stock characters, and then drew him in with their talent for invention, surely greater than his own. Less’s new novel, a serious investigation of the human soul, seems like a minor planet compared with the constellations invented by this man. And yet, what is there to ask him? What does one ever ask an author except: “How?” And the answer, as Less well knows, is obvious: “Beats me!”

The escort is chattering about the theater capacity, the preorders, the book tour, the money, the money, the money. She mentions that H. H. H. Mandern seems to have come down with food poisoning.

“You’ll see,” the escort says, and a black door opens onto a bright clean room where deli meats fan across a folding table. Beside it stands a white-haired lady in shawls, and below her: H. H. H. Mandern, vomiting into a bucket.

The lady turns to Arthur and scans the space helmet: “Who the hell are you?”

Excerpted from the book LESS by Andrew Sean Greer. Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Sean Greer. Reprinted by permission of Lee Boudreaux Books / Little, Brown and Company.

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