Traveling with Less
I’ve written before about taking a book with me around the world but unlike the last time, I actually read a bit of this one everywhere I took it – and it didn’t take years to finish. Less (awarded the Pulitzer prize in 2018) by Andrew Sean Greer, has been the perfect companion for me since I bought it while traveling in New York City last January.
The story of Less is about a man doing what I think is the best thing you can when it comes to avoiding your feelings: travel. An invitation to Freddy’s wedding, his ex-boyfriends of nine years, is more than enough reason to leave town, but with the addition of some career setbacks, Arthur Less, the titular character turning 50, decides to accept every job offer that comes his way for a writer of his stature. According to Goodreads:
What would possibly go wrong? [sic] Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.
Because, despite all these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings and mistakes, LESS is, above all, a love story.
Reading about a love story while wandering NYC alone and nursing some romantic disappointment of my own felt like the perfect amount of self introspection and sabotage. It also helped I was fast approaching my 30th birthday.
Shortly before I flew to NYC, I had changed my original flight to accommodate a guy when I found out he’d be in my home city of Portland that same weekend I’d been planning to be away. A guy from LA I’d been talking to for over six months but had yet to actually meet. Over the course of those months, our communication had fluctuated in intensity and frequency. Time and distance played a part for sure, and our one Skype date where we cooked “together” wasn’t quite the same as a face-to-face date. Nevertheless, I had remained quite enamored. We met for an early-for-me 10 AM brunch that turned into wandering downtown Portland well past 2 o’clock. For me, all boxes were being ticked; he was passionate, smart, articulate, tall, handsome, and kind. When he wanted to take a picture with me, I couldn’t be happier. When he kissed me right after the camera clicked, I was full-blown butterflies.
During our conversation, he gave me some suggestions of what to do and see while in New York, and we parted ways with hopes to see each other again. A few days into my trip and after experiencing an interactive show called Sleep No More, his suggestion, came a very long text of how he had thought long and hard, that we got along great, but he wished me well. That maybe our paths may cross again someday, but no more “effort” would be made on his part.
Arthur Less is enviable to me for the places he has been and his writerly status and past. His journey in the novel through Mexico, France, Germany, Japan, India, Morocco, and more, was full of places I’ve been and countries I’d love to see, but what really got me, what I couldn’t help but relate to with this aging gay man, was the love story. It took me six more months, several cities, and two more countries to finish but passages in the book like the following hit too close to home:
I am sure we both loved a different man. Because a lover exists only in fragments, a dozen or so if the romance is new, a thousand if we’ve married him, and out of those fragments our heart constructs an entire person. What we each create, since whatever is missing is filled in by our imagination, is the person we wish him to be. The less we know him, of course, the more we love him.
It kept me enthralled and needing space to unpack my own disappointments. Why I felt so excited and deflated by this sunny-based maybe-more-than crush. But then again, as Greer puts it, “Boredom is the only real tragedy for a writer; everything else is material.” This boy has given me more material for sure.
Less also made me think of the ways I limit myself in dating. The ways I hold back or push forward too quickly. The way I use cynicism as a shield. Arthur’s fictional life felt all too familiar:
Arthur Less has, for the past decade and a half, remained a bachelor. This came after a long period of living with the older poet Robert Brownburn, a tunnel of love he entered at twenty-one and exited, blinking in the sunlight, in his thirties. Where was he? Somewhere in there he lost the first phase of youth, like the first phase of a rocket; it had fallen, depleted, behind him. And here was the second. And last. He swore he would not give it to anyone; he would enjoy it. He would enjoy it alone. But: how to live alone and yet not be alone?
I don’t have an answer, only more questions. How do you not get or stay jaded when no one is actually responsible to follow-through? When commitment is temporary? When we say what we don’t really mean all too freely in order to feel less alone?
A month after New York, I found myself in Denver for work, Less in tow. This time around, I was trying to arrange a date with a great guy I’ve known thanks to social media for over seven years. Denver also turned out to be a bust. Timing is everything, and our work schedules never aligned to also finally meet.
Months later, Less and I found ourselves in London; I had gone there solo to turn 30 (aka what many call “gay death” for dating and love). While there, I met a guy from LA at a nightclub. We got to talking and realized we were both heading to Paris the next day; he would only be there for two days. We exchanged numbers and met up the next day underneath the Eiffel Tower, sipping overpriced red wine we’d been sold as the sun set and the famous lights of the tower lit up. He eventually leaned in and kissed me (if memory serves). Touristy teens laughed in English and smoked pot nearby, and the same man that sold us the first bottle tried to sell us a second for half the price.
Three days after my birthday, I was sitting at a cafe in Paris finishing Less in between wandering the Louvre and seeing the D’Orsay museums alone. I couldn’t help but think of the two LA guys, both so very different for many reasons. One long and drawn out, the other a blip in time, like the flashing lights on the Eiffel Tower. I thought of my first love. I thought of my last love. I thought of my failed budding romances.
Patti Jazanoski sums up Less quite nicely for the Kenyon Review:
The structure of the novel mirrors Less’s round-the-world trip. Each chapter reveals a new country, new obstacles, and a new cast of characters. Less drags along his emotional baggage from place to place, and any random event can trigger a memory from his past with Robert or Freddy or from his childhood; he is never alone. In theory, all this backstory could slow down the plot, but as Less enters new situations, the memories of his past create a certain consistency—for him and the reader—the emotional equivalent of eating at McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées.
So too, my reading of the novel felt like an exercise in the past. An upheaval of emotions as I brought Less with me around the world and tried to make new memories. I thought of the thousands of miles I’d traveled with Arthur and Less, physically and emotionally. I didn’t intend to mirror the story, sometimes life and books just happen that way.
My current mantra for 2019, and maybe beyond, is inspired by something a friend of Arthur’s says, “Fuck love and just get fat.” I'm trying to do the opposite of both. I’m trying to embrace love that comes my way, however fleeting or substantial it may turn out to be, and staying as active as possible. I’m trying to not do my oft-normal reaction of protecting my feelings and retreating from someone that may turn into something more. I’m trying to reject cynicism, whether I succeed or not. It would be much easier and more fun to follow the words of Arthur’s friend. I’m sure I’ll let you know how it goes.