Who hasn’t been in a situation like that of Arthur Less, the protagonist of Andrew Sean Greer’s new book, Less? All right, we might not all have been sent an invitation to the wedding of our former lover to his new, younger boyfriend when we’re turning fifty and already feeling panicky and irrelevant to the world, but we all know what it’s like to be facing an awkward social situation when we’re already feeling kind of vulnerable, and we all, I think, have felt the impulse to run for our lives to avoid the situation, even if that means we’re running into even more difficult circumstances which are more or less guaranteed to make us into complete fools.
Arthur Less has more than romantic failures to make him feel inadequate. He’s also a novelist who has never really cracked the big time (people over the course of the book ask him how it feels to know he’s just mediocre), and the big 5-0 looms over him like a thundercloud. He dithers about the invitation to his former lover’s wedding. On one hand, he doesn’t think he can sit through it without dying of humiliation. On the other hand, he knows that if he just says no to the invitation, everybody at the wedding and reception are going to think he’s bitter, he’s jealous, he just can’t cope (even if all those things are true, he doesn’t want people to think that). He comes up with what he thinks is a brilliant solution to the problem: instead of simply turning down the wedding invitation, he’s going to accept all these other invitations that are waiting for him, invitations to various writerly events in different parts of the world. He’s going to go on an around-the-world trip that’s (vaguely) work related, and that will prove he’s not trying to avoid his ex lover’s wedding.
Well, you know that’s not going to work. You know, even before reading this charming and funny book, that his various adventures in different parts of the world are all going to go awry, and he’s going to be involved in more humorous disasters than the most hapless P.G. Wodehouse hero. And yet, like the best P. G. Wodehouse heroes, Arthur is sufficiently charming and lovable that you find yourself rooting for him in the midst of all the things going wrong, and hoping that he will win himself a happy ending.