While, of course, there is a bittersweetness to all novels centered on aging, perhaps no other in recent memory gets it so right regarding both the cruel and just nature of time. That novel in question being Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, which miraculously won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018 in the face of it being a “humorous” work. And, as we all know, any modicum of humor in the literary world means that something can’t be taken seriously. But how else is one to approach the subject of having reached the firm beginning of one’s old age ergo the inevitable arrival of death? What’s worse, death without having achieved either success in love or career. As Arthur Less grapples with this reality upon the advent of his fiftieth birthday and the impending nuptials of his longtime lover of nine years, Freddy, he does what any man avoiding the reaper would: goes on a trip around the world under the guise that it’s to promote his “work,” the canon of which essentially consists of his debut novel, Kalypso, derided by some as the very thing that makes him “a bad gay” (for the protagonist stranded on a desert island with other homos ends up returning to his wife at the conclusion). To boot, Less has been newly dumped by his publisher, who finds nothing “sympathetic” regarding the premise of his latest manuscript about an older gay gentleman wandering the streets of San Francisco musing on the ruin of his life. So instead, it would seem, Arthur goes to live out that narrative himself, so long as no one is going to be reading about it.
Traipsing across the globe for literary events in his (dis)honor, Less casts his net upon countries as far-reaching as Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco and India. He is, incidentally, in Berlin on the day of Freddy’s wedding–the thing more looming and ominous even than his fiftieth birthday. Feeling the unspoken weight of this loss, he persists nonetheless on his journey, doing his best to distract, to do anything but be with himself too long. Yes, this plays into the gay male stereotype of being, shall we say, promiscuous (or at least wanting to be, therefore manifesting it in the quintessential emotional overshare). Sometimes this results in even greater loneliness–others, he is miraculously reminded of just how un-singular that feeling is (particularly during a romance-oriented interlude on a Parisian rooftop).
At the same time, there are very few in his orbit who can comprehend the grimness of being “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books.” To intensify and crystallize this specific breed of failure and irrelevance, his nemesis, fellow “Russian River” writer, Carlos Pelu (also, to further complicate matters, Freddy’s erstwhile guardian during his time spent with Carlos as his “son” a.k.a. orphaned nephew), is an effortless shoo-in for the category of “authors deemed worthy of the ‘gay canon.'” It is he who, accordingly, informs Arthur that his work will never make the cut because of how self-hatingly gay it is. That Carlos ends up being the one to travel the ends of the earth (specifically India) to collect Less in a certain injured state speaks volumes regarding the sadistic tendencies of fate. Through it all, Less keeps his chin up as best as any twink-turned-old man can. And, on the subject of once being young, it is one of Less’ most significant lovers (now seventy-five to his fifty), Robert Brownburn–another person in the gay literary world more esteemed than Less–who points it out best in the wake of the clarity that comes with having had a stroke/near death experience:
“When you meet people…say, when they’re thirty, and you can never really imagine them any younger than that. You’ve seen pictures of me, Arthur, you’ve seen me at twenty.” Arthur confirms, “You were a handsome guy.” To this, Robert contends, “But really, you can’t imagine me any younger than my forties, can you? You can picture it. But you can’t quite imagine it. You can’t go back any further. It’s against the laws of physics.”
Arthur, aware that he has succinctly described the phenomenon of aging–specifically of meeting someone aged–still tries to deny the truth. But Robert continues, “Arthur, I look at you and I still see that boy on the beach with the red toenails. Not at first, but my eyes adjust, I see that twenty-one year old boy in Mexico… I look at you, and you’re young. You’ll always be that way for me. But not for anyone else. Arthur, people who meet you now will never be able to imagine you young. They can never go any further back than fifty.”
It’s a disconcerting thought, to be sure. To never be able to truly get across your young person within when you’re dragging around that old husk without. But then, it isn’t so bad if you finagle someone early on enough in your life for them to always look at you that way–to see who you are beyond the wrinkles and sagginess. Gay, straight or otherwise, if you can’t manage that, well then, one hates to say it, but: you’re fucked–and not in the way you would like to be.