Note. Occasionally I will ask other writers to contribute a review here on the Damselfly blog. This review is by Hugh Cross, whose book Scenes from a Life is coming out in July. WR.
Hugh writes: Until recently, novels with gay characters were a rarity, except as examples of suffering or nostalgia for a forgotten past. Any author who portrayed gay men instantly became a ‘gay author’ and this label defined his work. Alan Hollinghurst came to prominence for his graphic descriptions of gay sex, which opened the doors for some imitators, and now gay novels are in vogue : so much so that ‘Less’, without sexual content, has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 2018.
What is ground-breaking is that this novel is, in my memory, the first such novel that has as its hero – a gay man who is funny, but not at his own expense. The novel is funny and tragic, but funny above all without being a caricature – a book about a gay author by a gay author.
Arthur Less is the eponymous hero of this picaresque meander through five or six European, African and Asian countries – an American in exile or on his own odyssey. What is troubling him is that he has received an invitation to the wedding of his ex-boyfriend – whom he’s been with for nine years. So, to avoid the embarrassment of saying yes or saying no he was finally persuaded – he is always being persuaded to do things he doesn’t want to – by his indifferent agent, to embark on a trip to attend crazy literary events around the world. He has a book in the offing, but more importantly, he is a few days off his fiftieth birthday. As someone who lives in the flesh, he is conscious of growing old, and meeting at least two new lovers and several old ones. So proceeds to stumbles through the helter-skelter ride, losing a suitcase, his best suit and nearly gets killed, trying to keep up with events not of his own making.
As the novel progresses, we experience his tendency to self-dramatize and his desperate wondering about why he gets partners who reflect him in the mirror of their own personality. And then someone feels ‘kind enough’ to tell him he is a ‘bad gay’, he immediately assumes he is also a bad man, a bad American and a bad writer. Tellingly, he realises that the main character of his next novel – whom he thought was a hero – is really a fool, and he knows how he has been cast. In life’s commedia del’arte.
When at the end he realises who and what he has pointlessly been striving after, he answers the question, ‘What do I want from life’ with the one word: ‘Less’.
The character’s journeys as an author give plenty of scope for satirical depictions of literary events. In the middle of the book is a hilarious set-piece where, instead of the event taking place in a library or University, he finds himself in a Berlin night-club with the attendees dressed as agents or counter agents, carrying toy guns and dropping like flies through dehydration. He reads extracts from his book translated into German, which he can’t speak, and is forced to wear a polka dot tie, as representing his country.
This is in the tradition of David Lodge’s academics and Maupin’s ‘Tales’, but where the latter’s books were just funny and a bit sentimental, ‘Less’ has a dark tinge: it is there, but not overwhelmingly so. It is more an in-depth display of a character the reader can relate to and feel comfortable with
Less is written with marked lyricism and musicality, combined with deadly accuracy about people. To use the words ‘witty and wise and piquant’ doesn’t do justice to the novel’s bold structure, its complexity and depth. A surprising and worthy prize winner.