October Book Review Club: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less
Not quite famous novelist Arthur Less desperately wants to get out of the country. He hasn’t committed a crime and he isn’t on the run, but he wants an iron clad reason not to attend his long term lover’s wedding. So he goes through his junk mail, accepting teaching appointments at random German universities, attending literary awards he has never heard of in Italy, taking on a food writing assignment in Japan, and agreeing to attend a friend of a friend’s birthday celebration in Morocco. During the course of his travels, Less accumulates a series of embarrassing moments, a series of surprise victories, he has several flings, and he turns fifty.

Although Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I would consider this to be more of an escapist read rather than serious literary fiction. It is certainly a well-written book, but it reminded me somewhat of Bridget Jones’s Diary, if Bridget had been a middle-aged white gay male. Like with Bridget, I sympathized with Less, cringed with Less, laughed at Less, and was happy when he had a (usually accidental) victory. Both Less and Bridget have a relatable yet slightly cartoonish quality, like if the most awkward moments of your life were someone else’s entire life.

While Less is clownish in some ways, he is also more significant than he realizes. Having once been the lover of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, he has always felt inferior, like a person always destined to live on the edge of genius and never be the genius. As a result, he does not realize that his work has been read and loved by people around the world or that every man he has been romantically involved with has fallen in love with him.

The true failings of Less are not that he is innocent and prone to disaster. It is that he does not know how to be in love and that he does not know how to grow older. Less has had two great loves in his life–one much older and the other much younger–and he has lost them both due to being unfaithful as well as keeping himself emotionally unavailable. He also fears age, feeling that he does not even know how to be a mature gay man. Reflecting on the generation before him, Less thinks, “He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty.”

While Arthur Less has his flaws, this is ultimately a comedy, and traveling the world with Arthur Less is a great joy.  I loved this–and the main character–throughout the book, but when I came to the end, it just felt like the perfect end to Less’s journey. I would recommend this for anyone in search of a fun, lighthearted read, as well as to anyone who would like to read more books about LGBTQ characters. For more October book reviews, please check out Barrie’s blog.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

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March Book Review Club: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (short story collection)

BookReview

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is a collection of eight short stories about living in a female body. Some of the stories have the feel of dark fairy tales told in a literary style, while others feel more experimental.  Many of them have magical or fantastical elements. All of the stories are multi-layered, and the reader puzzles her way through them. Sometimes, a story will seem to be about one thing, then it changes and becomes what you did not expect.

Some of the stories are haunting. In The Husband Stitch, a woman is madly in love with her husband, but he is obsessed with untying the ribbon around her neck, which is the only thing she has ever denied him, explaining the ribbon is hers alone. In Inventory, a woman lives in a world where everyone is dying of a mysterious epidemic. As people head north to Canada in hopes of fleeing the disease, she meets fewer and fewer people, and she creates an inventory of her love affairs in this story of isolation and connection. In Real Women Have Bodies, women are literally fading away and becoming transparent. The narrator is a sales associate in a prom dress boutique who falls in love with another woman just before her girlfriend begins to fade.

Some of the stories focus on the aftermath of trauma.  In The Resident, a writer accepts a residency in Devil’s Throat, an isolated and hilly region, which is the same area where she was victim of bullying as a teenage Girl Scout. As she works on her novel, she feels as though she is trapped in her past. In Difficult at Parties, a woman is recovering from a violent assault and trying to recover her sexuality and her relationship with her partner. She looks to porn videos for inspiration, but finds that she can hear the thoughts of the actors.

The most experimental was Especially Heinous, which is written as a summary of episodes of Law & Order: SVU. The catch is that it’s a nightmare version of Law & Order: SVU, where there is no logic. Benson and Stabler have doppelgangers, Henson and Abler, who try to steal their identities. The ghosts of dead girls haunt Benson’s apartment.  This was a story that I nearly gave up on, as I initially felt like I was reading the plot notes of an extremely drunk writer. I skimmed at first, pondered skipping ahead to the next story, and at some point, I began finding its weirdness appealing.

The most straightforward story was Eight Bites, which focuses on body image. The narrator is the daughter of a thin and very disciplined woman, but she and her sisters all struggle with their weight in adulthood, and one by one, the sisters all undergo bariatric surgery. It takes the woman most of her life to realize that in her quest for an acceptable body, she has rejected her own body and her own daughter.

While my favorites of the stories were The Husband Stitch, Real Women Have Bodies, and The Resident, my least favorite of the collection was Mothers, which was partly about an abusive relationship and partly about motherhood, but mostly it was confusing. While I found the other stories to be complicated, the type of stories where you find new things each time you read them, I was not confused by them. They challenged me, but were not over my head. I am not sure if this one was over my head, but it confused me.

I recommend this short story collection, but it is not a book for the prudish. While Machado does not always write about bodies in a sexual way (some stories deal with illness or body image), there is a lot of sex in these stories and much of this collection focuses on sexual identity. Fans of literary fiction or those looking to add more LGBT authors to their library will likely enjoy this.

FCC Notice: I purchased a Kindle copy.

 

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@Barrie Summy