More & more of less

If you’re into symbolism and things like that, here’s what you see.

A man named Arthur Less. First name brimming with bravery and daring. Last name, Less. He’s a writer, not great or bestseller, but his former relationships with popular writers have rubbed off on him, he’s known more by the company he kept, and more particularly his association with an extinct school of writers that has now passed into legend. As in the case of every middling writer, there’s something big in future, probably. 

A good writer whose current novel has been rejected. He’s gay and mourning the impending marriage of a partner he’d loved. To avoid attending the wedding, he accepts random literary and academic invitations and travels around the world. Mexico, Germany, France, Morocco, India, Japan.

The invitations have to do with interviewing an eccentric popular writer, being shortlisted for a prize no one’s heard of, filling in a slot for someone’s birthday celebration, teaching a five-week course in Berlin because they thought he was good in German, a stay in a Kerala (Keralan, writes author Greer) resort at the suggestion of an old arch-rival, and an assignment by default in Japan to write on a traditional cuisine for an in-flight magazine. All because he wants to avoid that sad wedding.

We all judge people by association. Oh, right, he’s gay. He’s a not-so-well-thought-of writer. Ah yes, he was abused/ridiculed/admired by so-and-so. When you do well, all’s well, when you don’t, ah well!

 Words they spoke, how they behaved at a particular time or how they responded to a particular provocation/need. We judge them by how people talk about them. Why, even by their appearance or smile or grimace, the kind of suit they wear. We all carry little portraits of people that surface when we think of them and it’s strange, these are, generally, changeable portraits. Like digital frames they give us momentary, mutable images that change according to context and perception, or our own changeable moods. You cannot live a person’s life and see what they are really like.

Unless you’re a writer. And this is what Greer does for Less. He introduces us to the labels first, and then makes us accompany Less through places, people and events, until finally, like the Sanskrit text, we’re able to say, ‘not this, not this’, and form for ourselves a complete picture of the man, which is our takeaway, and no one else’s. It is what any novel is equipped to do, whether it does it or not, and this is what Greer accomplishes with almost casual ease.

The novel won this year’s Pulitzer, and Greer probably had some foresight there as well, because at one point he shows us the correct way to pronounce Pulitzer.

It’s a comic and sad tale, to stick to the labels, but it goes beyond that and shows us more of Less through the minor Odyssey (again suggested at one point) he undertakes. In the beginning, the woman who’s come to take him to the New York interview ignores him, thinking somehow she’s there to escort a woman. The writer to be interviewed is sick and vomiting into a bucket. That’s surely an auspicious beginning! But Less is adjusting and brave, he takes it all, the “old acquaintance” in Paris, the hilarious challenges thrown by the German language, groping through a sandstorm in a desert, an attack during a power cut by a sewing needle, needing him to be hospitalised in Thiruvananthapuram, his favourite blue suit finished by a “feral” interloper, and finally finding lost people.

The narrator begins thus: “From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.” You start investing interest in the narrator, only to forget him until he gets back into the picture, describing a scene when he’d met Less in his pre-teens and felt cheated when he learnt that Less was a grown-up. Here again, when you think the novel is a device to “know” the character, you realise the narrator is not simply an authorial voice. It leads us to a further adjustment of perspective.

Arthur Less is a person “without a skin”, innocent and sensitive, mopping up the world’s abrasiveness. But, parallelly, the world is working in a whorl, unknown to him, returning to him his childhood memories and images, returning to him everything he fears he has lost. It is Greer’s crystal humour and sharp imagery that keep us rooted in his narrative, in fact in the life of his protagonist. We realise at various points that every slight and disappointment is only moving towards a brighter light, the path grins with hope, until finally, we realise we were right, the narration too has been kind and has been eager to come to a teary but relieved ending.

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