“When I won the Pulitzer Prize, my agent said, ‘don’t write a sequel. You cannot write a sequel to a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It’s not cool,’” recalls Andrew Sean Greer, whose novel Less won the award back in 2017. Now, he’s released the sequel he was warned he shouldn’t write: Less is Lost. Now, to be fair, Greer’s literary agent denies that she was opposed to continuing that bestselling novel (“but she said it!” the writer insists).
One afternoon in 2019, Sean Greer – who was born in Washington, D.C., in 1970 – sat down to look over a manuscript. At about 150-pages-long, it was what he had worked on after winning the Pulitzer. It was a story about a road trip across the United States.
After reading it, he issued a judgment – one that carried a lot of weight, considering that he was, by then, an award-winning writer: “This is terrible.”
What he really wanted, he finally admitted, was to return to Less – his previous novel and his fifth overall – which is a lyrical, pessimistic, exhilarating work, about writing, growing old and being a gay man.
“And I thought, well, if you win a Pulitzer Prize, doesn’t it mean you can write anything you want? So I thought, screw it, I’ll do what I want, even though my agent will be mad at me.”
Less is Lost continues the adventures of Arthur Less – a gay novelist in his 50s who walks a fine line between feeling recognized and completely forgotten. Clueless and a victimizer (“the first homosexual in history to grow old,” the mysterious narrator explains to the reader), Less is a bit of a Buster Keaton, in that he is never aware of the danger that surrounds him... until it’s too late. At the same time, he doesn’t seem to realize how lucky he is.
This contradiction allowed Greer to frame – in the first installment – the figure of the white gay man in an innovative way; as the most privileged of the rainbow flag. At the beginning of the book, Less is finishing a sad novel about the tragedy of being a gay man who grows up without guidance, since his elders died in the AIDS epidemic. In the end, after traveling through several countries and broadening his views a bit, Less decides to turn that same tragedy into a farce.
Greer – as The New Yorker put it – used a similar trick as his protagonist, obtaining an overwhelming result. The tenderness with which he criticized and praised his character was contagious. The public, critics and the rest of the literary community agreed – something that is very rare – in calling the novel “perfect.” It was a beautiful book, but it was also an important book… one that introduced – for the first time into the Anglo-Saxon lexicon – the figure of the bad gay, who lives anchored in his own prejudice and forgets those who are all around him.
However, that concept bores Greer today. “Politically, to be a bad gay is to not be totally in line with [gayness, as if it’s] a political movement. Although I’m very progressive and left-wing, I’m an artist, so I sometimes sit and think about things… I’m more ambiguous than politically useful.”
“Nowadays, I hear people use the term ‘bad gay’ [when you didn’t see the] last episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s like, [if you don’t like the show], you’re not properly participating in the common gay male urban culture. I don’t watch that show… and it’s like I’m letting my people down in some way.”
In his new book, Greer’s gaze has gone elsewhere. “I’m definitely part of the LGBT+ world, but I’m also interested in other experiences… like going on these trips to rural places in America. The big surprise [to me] was how many queer people were out there. I had thought we’re all in the cities, because everyone fled their rural towns to go to where they would be safe. But that’s no longer true in the United States. I think people are coming out and they’re staying where they are for all kinds of reasons… it was just eye-opening. I realized how wrong I was about what the queer experience is in the United States. I needed to think about it again.”
Less is Lost deals with these ideas. This time around, Less embarks on a coast-to-coast road trip across the United States. The heart of the new story is not the sexuality of the character or his profession, but the newfound conservatism within him. Like the author, he finds meaning in traditional American values… even as a gay man. Arthur Less may be lost, but at least he’s in a land that rewards naivety and optimism – his two best traits.
His own personality is revealed, in fact, as a metaphor for the American project. “What I find charming about writing about [Arthur Less] is that things go terribly wrong… and yet, he always thinks, ‘I’m sure it’s going to all be better tomorrow.’ At the end of the last book, he sort of recommits to innocence. He doesn’t say ‘I’m going to get a real job.’ He just says ‘I’ll just go on.’ Which is a kind of wisdom, but also incredibly foolish. But that’s the kind of foolishness I wanted to reward.”
Greer has found solace in distancing himself from the terrible present of the United States. “I’m not a good writer for now; I’m a good writer for a few years from now,” he explains. In his new fictionalized version of the US, there is no Trump, no pandemic, no politics and no polarization. “I set it just before 2019 [before the pandemic]. As for politics, that was definitely happening… although it didn’t come up on my trip. I went on the road trip right after Trump won the election in 2016. I rented a camper van. But people didn’t talk to me about politics. And so I didn’t put it in the book, because although I saw signs and flags everywhere, I thought, if I put it in the book, it will make it a relic of one particular moment in time, instead of something people could read 10 or 20 years from now.”
In recent years, Greer has been living in Milan with his boyfriend and observing the US from abroad. “My country had changed so much that I found myself feeling like a foreigner in my own home.”
Greer was already a trendy writer long before he won the Pulitzer Prize. His second novel – The Confession of Max Tivoli (2004) – received such an enthusiastic review by John Updike in The New Yorker that the young author quickly became a favorite of the American literati. This was an uncomfortable experience for a man who is pathologically reserved, an irredeemable drug addict and, as he himself admits, “not a joiner.”
Like the protagonist he can’t let go of, Greer often surrounds himself with strangers and ends up in odd situations. He lived in New York in the 1990s, where he had a hard time and worked as a driver for the Saturday Night Live writers. He tested video games for Nintendo; he then moved to Montana – where he swears he had a “great” time – and from there to San Francisco, where he befriended authors such as Dave Eggers, Amy Tan, Daniel Handler, Khaled Hosseini… every author with enough prestige to be recognized and not enough income to fit into the Manhattan literary scene. A group of renegades: a perfect group for a man who tends to steer clear of groups.
“I don’t think any writer feels like they belong in the literary scene… God help them if they do. No, I mean, maybe I belong in the San Francisco one, only because I’ve been here a long time and people were so kind to me from the beginning. I don’t belong in New York at all. But I do feel part of the international literary world.”
He says this because his travels ended up taking him to Milan, where he settled, in love (is there another reason to move?) with a man from there (whose identity, in a very personal gesture, he does not reveal, beyond saying that he works in the Italian literary industry). He ended up entering the circle of Baroness Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori – the widow of the writer Gregor von Rezzori and director of Santa Maddalena, a writers’ residence popular among winners of the Pulitzer, the Booker and the Prix Goncourt.
What’s more, the news that he had won the Pulitzer reached him, on April 17, 2018, in a typically Lessian moment of triumph and humiliation: after dedicating an entire day to training the Baroness’s little elderly pug to walk while wearing diapers. The residence was expecting a visit from Margaret Atwood and the Baroness didn’t want the oldest of her many dogs to make a mess.
“I got him to wear [diapers] for the first time and put him in bed with the Baroness,” Greer recalls. “Afterwards, my boyfriend showed me a message with the news of the award.” It was 10 at night in Europe. Everyone knew about his victory, except him. “So it wasn’t the proudest moment. It was a moment of real humility and then this crazy news that was the opposite kind of feeling. It wasn’t very grand… but it was a very comic experience for me.”
Sean Greer is a divorced man. Hence, it’s best not to ask his opinion about the institution. “It’s complicated. It should be a right… but not a goal. The goal is to be happy. And marriage is just a trick to make you think you are.” He does admit, though, that getting married was emotional. “It was a great feeling… participating in something that is so ancient in society. And also, everyone understands what you’re talking about when you say ‘my husband.’ You don’t have to fiddle around with partner, boyfriend, lover, or whatever word you use when you’re trying to communicate that someone is an important person in your life.”
Marital unions appear frequently in his work: The Confession of Max Tivoli, for example, was followed by The Story of a Marriage (2009). In his latest work, Arthur Less also participates in this fixation. Caught in the tension between now and forever – the fleeting and the irreparable – Less has only what any desperate man still has: faith. In love, in his country, in the little things. And that’s where Greer displays his traditionalism, showing how he’s inspired by the American dream.
In one passage, the narrator – who turns out to be Less’s boyfriend – asks a rhetorical question of his country: “America, how’s your marriage? Your 250-year-old promise to stay together in sickness and in health? First 13 states, then more and more, until 50 of you had taken the vow. Like so many marriages, I know, it was not for love; I know it was for tax reasons, but soon you all found yourselves financially entwined, with shared debts and land purchases and grandiose visions of the future, yet somehow, from the beginning, essentially at odds. Ancient grudges. That split you had – that still stings, doesn’t it? Who betrayed whom, in the end? I hear you tried getting sober. That didn’t last, did it?”
“So how’s it going, America? Do you ever dream of each being on your own again? Tell me honestly, because I have contemplated marriage and wonder: If it can’t work for you, can it work for any of us?”
Less has the audacity to say that a gay man can be a bad influence on himself and his collective. Less is Lost – the work that a withdrawn drug addict has completed after sending the world to hell – ensures that the final frontier of our times – which are filled with matters of identity, collectives and disagreements – is not personal victory. Rather, it is coexistence.
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