Less Discussion Journal

“‘What is love, Arthur? What is it?’ she asks him. ‘Is it the good dear thing I had with Janet for eight years? Is it the good dear thing? Or is it the lightning bolt? The destructive madness that hit my girl?’” p. 189

We gathered on Tuesday evening to discuss Less, the book and the man, love, romance, relatability, writers, language and Pulitzer Prizes.  Actually, we didn’t even mention one of the most memorable phrases for me – “magniloquent spoony.” Magniloquent, a word that combines both magnificent and eloquent turns out to mean “pompous; bombastic; boastful.”[1]  The Pulitzer Prize made us want to sit up and pay attention, to look for meanings and to wonder what we might be missing. 

Prior to the meeting, I heard from several people who had been unable to finish the book. Most just couldn’t relate to the character – his sexuality, his vanity, his self-absorbed whininess. He was a published author, an award winner, able to travel the world, turn fifty in Morocco, riding camels and ruminating with others about their failed romances. In the end, he gets paid to eat and review traditional kaiseki cuisine in Japan[2], which can be very expensive.  When we have so many books to choose from, depressing politics in the news, a scary and threatening pandemic keeping us locked up in our homes and food not allowed in our library book club, are Arthur Less’ woes provocative enough?

Less was not DC’s, our first responder’s, favorite, but she enjoyed it more than our last tale of urban Indians in Oakland. Some of the scenes were funny – the language gaffes during his travels, such as the volcano is closed (like a museum)—and the scene in the market when Arthur loses his ring.  Our connection was evident as we each thought back and remembered scenes, chuckling lightly and then turning back to the discussion.

CB enjoyed the book, but she found it at first confusing.  She believes she would need to read it three or four times to understand it fully. She wondered about possible connections to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, since Arthur’s story is full of poetic remembrances.[3] The gay sex was toned down. The story was romantic and sentimental. She liked Arthur and was moved that he didn’t know how to be gay and 50.

JG thought the book was good but weird. Quirky.  She is a fast reader, but this one took her a long time to read. The movement in time through memories was confusing. The story was thought-provoking enough to distract from the plot elements.

JT didn’t like the book. It didn’t keep her interest.  KK quit reading after a little more than 100 pages. Less also wasn’t a favorite for SO, but she had been intrigued by the little village in Morocco enough to discover that it is based on a real village. But Arthur was disappointing.  He never acknowledged his real feelings. He never seemed connected with himself. SO felt that losing the blue suit to the dog in the end was losing himself, finally growing up. She saw an interesting depth in Arthur’s story of low self-esteem, but isn’t it hard to like someone who doesn’t like himself?

KC used the word tortuous when he mentioned reading the book twice, since he had read it previously. He found Less’ story relatable because he had lived in San Francisco and knew how scary HIV had been for the gay community. How fortunate he feels to have donated blood and yet never needed to have a transfusion. How lucky he feels in general. Arthur, however, engaged in risky, casual sex, with no mention of protection. He was promiscuous. KC does not want to judge, but he could not relate to this behavior. Arthur lived a minor-league life. He was juvenile.

Nor could many of us relate to Arthur’s angst at turning 50. We wondered about gender roles and vanity; about stereotypes and homosexuality; about our own experiences and last year’s book club selection This Is How It Always Is.

We returned to interpreting the ending. We had mixed feelings about Arthur and Freddy’s future together.  KC felt that Freddy had imprinted on Arthur, but that Arthur hadn’t learned yet to commit. We discussed whether Arthur was whiny or fearful with low self-esteem. Had he changed? He did have a new, sparkly, gray suit.

I felt truly moved by this discussion.  I had not liked Arthur, but I began to wonder at the reliability of a narrator who loved Arthur trying to explain Arthur’s fears adequately. And during the discussion I quit wondering whether or not the book deserved a Pulitzer Prize. I asked if anyone understood what was meant by so many people in Germany getting sick? I was looking for some profound connection. Then JG said she thought it was just coincidence. All that self-absorption is rather contagious after all!

So much more was in this discussion, but you’d have to have been there.  Would we be able to capture it virtually? The silent, thoughtful pauses, the excited energy as we sit up and pay attention? The interruptions that never quite make it as we discuss or comment with a neighbor—lost in the single-speaker zoom.  Thanks for sending your comments, attending our meeting and continuing the discussion.  We may never figure out the meaning of love, but the discussion matters.

Other works discussed:

  • This Is How It Always Is (2017) by Laurie Frankel
  • There There (2018) by Tommy Orange
  • Moonflower Murders (2020) by Anthony Horowitz (sequel to Magpie Murders)
  • In Search of Lost Time (1909 -1927) by Marcel Proust
  • Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape From the Democrat Plantation (2020) by Candace Owen
  • Call Me By Your Name  (2018) DVD
  • Love Is Strange (2015) DVD

Excerpt from Less by Andrew Sean Greer page 161 (read aloud during the meeting):

“What does a camel love? I would guess nothing in the world. Not the sand that scours her, or the sun that bakes her, or the water she drinks like a teetotaler. Not sitting down, blinking her lashes like a starlet. Not standing up, moaning in indignant fury as she manages her adolescent limbs. Not her fellow camels, to whom she shows the disdain of an heiress forced to fly coach. Not the humans who have enslaved her.”

[1] Dictionary.com full definition:  “speaking or expressed in a lofty or grandiose style; pompous; bombastic; boastful.”

[2] “Japanese cuisine is among the most highly regarded in the world, and nowhere is Japan’s culinary prowess better demonstrated than in kaiseki elegantly presented dishes.  It started as a simple meal meant to accompany Japanese cuisine. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese tasting course comprised of many small, tea ceremonies, but over the centuries this culinary tradition has become the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine.” Web accessed 10-15-2020: https://savorjapan.com/contents/more-to-savor/kaiseki-cuisine-japans-artful-culinary-tradition-explained/

[3] ““Arthur Less’s life with Robert ended around the time he finished reading Proust. It was one of the grandest and most dismaying experiences in Less’s life—Marcel Proust, that is—and the three thousand pages of In Search of Lost Time took him five committed summers to finish.” p. 237

4 thoughts on “Less Discussion Journal

  1. I am posting below the comments I received by email prior to the meeting! I read them aloud at the meeting and know that all views are informative.

    MM: I will not be attending the book club meeting on the 13th due to the Coronavirus. Here are my comments on the book, Less:
    I did not care for this book very much. I thought the writing was disjointed at times since it was hard to figure out who was talking. I had a hard time relating to this book. There were so many parties with so many drugs and so much sex. It seemed never ending. I don’t live in that world, as I’m sure most of us don’t. Maybe that’s typical stuff for New York City and other metropolitan areas. Maybe homosexual writers and artists actually live the kind of life described in this book. I don’t know.
    Arthur Less was a sad person with low self esteem. He didn’t seem to improve in that regard until toward the end. During most of the book we read nothing but “poor me” from him. I got sick and tired of his self-absorption and whining, and I found it hard to be sympathetic toward him.
    All in all, this is not the type of book I enjoy reading.
    I hope all of you in attendance at the meeting have a good discussion!

  2. CH: I read Less . Will be interested in your thoughts and how others in group felt. I didn’t enjoy till about half way through. Then began to see it as deeper and more universal.

  3. RMP: I enjoyed the story and the characters very much. (Fewer characters to keep track of). Again, I took time to read/listen to the beginning a second time. Second time around I caught on to who the narrator was at the end. It was fun to read of Arthur Less’ adventures as he traveled around the world and deals with his aging life. I felt from early in the story that Freddie would not go through with his wedding. Actually he did get married but not for long. It was fun to read about Arthur’s various relationships, his clothes selections and problems; the loss of his blue suit and the replacement with a lovely grey suit. I liked the happy ending. It concluded the story of Arthur’s around the world tour and left an opportunity for the story to continue with Freddie, and perhaps his rewritten manuscript will be a success.

  4. I wish, as usual, that I could attend these meetings. I love learning all the points of view. I dismissed a lot of the sexual encounters, I guess, since hetero writers groups are much the same at conferences (or so I’ve heard). I was more aware throughout of writers and their venues and egos and their particular roles. Arthur seemed to take a low-esteem role as a author and a courteous role in all other ways–maybe a bit hardhearted toward Freddie (who was a lesser writer, you see. Those who can’t do, teach.). The book was familiar to me in writer egos and angsts but new in the various countries. It was at heart a romance, and I enjoyed that.

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