The novelist Arthur Less refers to his suit as the suit. He is no one without this suit, bought impulsively in Ho Chi Minh City while “drunk on car exhaust and sugarcane.” It is a fine suit; it was custom-tailored for him. The fit, the pockets, the collar: all good. But what makes it the suit is the blue color.
“Peacock? Lapis? Nothing gets close. Medium but vivid, moderately lustrous, definitely bold. Somewhere between ultramarine and cyanide salts, between Vishnu and Amon, Israel and Greece, the logos of Pepsi and Ford… He loved whatever self had chosen it,” Andrew Sean Greer ‘88 writes of Arthur Less’ suit in the first chapter of his latest novel, Less.
Arthur Less is the protagonist of Less, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction, a rare prize for a comic novel. Less is a writer, who, upon learning that his longtime younger ex-boyfriend is to be married, accepts invitations around the globe to dodge the wedding with a solid excuse. He takes whatever he can get his hands on: a teaching gig at a university in Berlin, a literary conference in Mexico City, a job writing a travel article in Japan. All the while, he reflects on his life and his relationships, wistfully looking back before he turns 50.
The passage about his blue suit is emblematic of many things: the character, the author, and the novel itself. The main character provides a fascinating look into a gay writer’s lonely middle-age life, one who has intimately known genius in his life, and feels like something is not right with him. There are many ambiguities in the character. What exactly he wants, for instance, is rarely clear. Until it is very clear.
What the blue suit shows about Greer as an author is that he can write evocatively. Visceral imagery comes off the pages, even in the most mundane situations. In the morning, in his New York hotel room: “the coffeemaker… is a hungry little mollusk, snapping open its jaws to devour pods and subsequently secreting coffee into a mug.” In fact, little details like this are partially what make the book such a pleasure to read.
Any thing or person in the novel is eligible to be bestowed with Greer’s whimsical descriptions. Look no further than the bougainvillea growing on Less’ porch, like a “discarded prom dress,” or the Moroccan airport officers, in the “green and red of cocktail olives.” The author has an uncanny ability to create sharp images in the reader’s mind, through playful, not literal, descriptions. The Pulitzer Prize committee, unsurprisingly, described Less as “musical in its prose” in its official statement.
The novel, as a whole, is like Less’ curious blue suit. Medium in its agenda, but vivid. Difficult to place. While this novel is about a specific person, whose experience might appear very distant from that of any high school experience, Greer illustrates the difficulties of time and life with vivid hues. The luster is there; the plot spans the globe and transports the reader into striking situations. It is somewhere in between a travel novel, a memoir, a comedy, and a examination of the human condition all at once. But most importantly, like that Vietnamese tailored blue suit that Arthur Less cannot live without, it leaves you loving whatever self chose to pick it up.
By William Goldberg’19