As a regular reader of many very different sorts of books, I often find myself inspired to make connections between the books I read. As I read Jeff Goodell’s powerful work of journalism, The Water Will Come, all I could think about outside of his intense and compelling narrative was a rather different book; New York 2140, a hilarious and somehow hopeful vision of the future by master science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. As I read one book, the other began to speak to me, in a sort of cross-talk that gave both books more depth and scope. Even before I finished The Water Will Come, I wanted to re-read New York 2140.
But it struck me that perhaps a more fruitful path would be to take the steps to get the authors of these two books speaking to one another. From a distance, the two books could not seem more different, science fiction set in the medium future versus journalism about the here and now. But between the two books, there was a lot of similar thought-experimentation in play.
I’ll let the authors speak for themselves in this 45-minute conversation that explores not just the subjects in the books, but those outside the books, in particular means of ameliorating the damage we have done and that to come. Here’s a link to download the conversation so you can listen as the seas rise; or, perhaps you’re more of a mind to settle back here, in this moment, where you are, and hear ideas as they are wrested from their aeries and given form by two of our brightest and most entertaining minds.
We like our truths straightforward and simple, served up as stories, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Reality, alas, is disinclined to offer up truth, or anything else for that matter, in a direct manner. First-person accounts are both notoriously unreliable and unverifiable, even as they are presented as documentary evidence. Historical records become fragmented, with promising motherlodes trailing off into scattershot marginalia. Color everything through the lenses of present mores and emotions and the prospects of coherence and completion seem dim.
All of this makes Beth Macy’s Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South an astonishing accomplishment even before you get to the explosive emotions explored here. Macy keeps her focus at ground level, and in so doing challenges herself because the story and the truths you find here are both complicated and contradictory. Bits of the broad outline only seem simple. The power of Truevine is Macy’s ability to speak to and of hardscrabble lives that are horrific in terms of the world today, and yet illuminate those aspects of the present that remain difficult to discuss. Truevine asks lots of questions and offers lots of answers, but as in reality, the two do not always line up neatly.
In theory, we should know the story, which played out in the press and public some 100-ish years ago. George and Willie Muse were albino black boys born to sharecropper parents who worked a tobacco farm. They were lured away from the fields by a white man with candy who turned them into circus freak-show superstars. Their mother spent 13 years trying to get them back. We think we can piece together this much from uncontestable public records. In Truevine, Beth Macy carefully rebuilds all the worlds traversed in this seemingly succinct narrative. What the public records tell us is not even a small part of either the story or the truth of what happened.
Truevine is an utterly compelling exploration of history, story, narrative and the human. Macy takes us inside freak shows, places where the outcasts of this world could find equality and acceptance as well as the utterly bizarre. We see the world of the Jim Crow, the supposedly post-slavery South that ripples uneasily into the present. Macy spent years getting to know the descendants and relatives of the Muse family. Yet, as complex and contradictory as the stories she is told are, the reading experience is detailed immersive and crisply told. And because, of necessity, the story goes many different places, there are lots of fascinating subcultures to enjoy… or at least witness.
The Muse Brothers’ experience is ultimately unknowable; neither of them left records. What we can know is the sum total of what has been said and what has been written. As you find yourself compelled by the smart, nuanced storytelling you find in Truevine, you’ll realize that stories, truth, and history do not, in fact, cannot, tell us what we want and need to know. We humans need other humans to build us worlds of words. The worlds you find in Truevine are astonishingly engaging and entertaining, but never neat and tidy. This is the stuff of life, understandable and inexplicable.
There’s a bit of irony in the fact that by choosing to write of sharecroppers, Beth Macy gave herself a tough row to hoe. This book is dives straight into the uncomfortable, served up by the unconfirmable. As Beth and I discussed her book, we talked about the complicated tangle of data that she unearthed as she tried to merge truth, story and history. Her book is meticulously documented and exciting to read. And yes, let me mention that I could not help but think of one of my favorite novel, ever, Katherine Dunn’s iconic Geek Love as I read Truevine. And it’s not just the freak show that joins these two. It’s that both offer up the contradictions of life in exciting details. You can hear Beth and I speak to the details and the contradictions of life by following this link to the MP3 audio file. Or, you can just stick around, kick back on the electronic front porch, and listen to the stories, finding life.
Property is problematic. What can be owned and who can own it? Ownership can be onerous, which is to say a responsibility, or it can be empowering, an exemption from the obligation to care. With Autonomous, science journalist Annalee Newitz uses the science fiction novel in an exciting, emotionally engaging exploration of the edges of our economy. Pulse-pounding adventure proves to be the perfect instrument for examining the wreckage left after technology steamrollers over philosophy.
Newitz sets her story some 125 years into the future, in a world that is recognizably ours. Jack is a gene-splicing pharma pirate, a young woman who replicates patented life-saving and -extending therapies, bootlegging them so the poor can get a leg up. Paladin is a “human level” AI, indentured to the African Federation and working with Eliasz, a human, to bring Jack in. She’s pirated a prescription drug that unfortunately has terminal side effects. Ownership, moral and economic, are at war. Survival is optional.
Newitz expertly immerses readers in this world, wisely doling out bits of what we expect, what we hope and what we desperately want to find out with a plot that manages to be tense without ever getting into “artificial thriller” mode. We turn these pages because Newitz crafts characters who feel real. Everyone is shaded, with motivations that are both selfish and selfless. As Paladin and Eliasz make their way through the world seeking Jack, she seeks to undo what she has done. The thrill here is that we like both halves of this equation, and want everyone to succeed, which by definition should be impossible.
Newitz pulls off a lot of amazing feats in this novel. It’s a quick fun read that will make you think about a lot of current affairs by taking them out of today and resetting them in her future. Her characters, from the walk-ons to the leads are all superb and feel particularly real, especially Paladin, a masterpiece of neuroscientific pansexual speculation. The character arc of this robot, and others, including Med, a medical robot that appears human, are exciting and emotionally engaging incarnations of cutting-edge speculation about neuroscience and intelligence, artificial and “natural.”
Autonomous is bursting with ideas, and informed by a vision that’s not dystopian or utopian. It feels particularly real and agenda-free, almost slice-of-life some 125 years hence. In the here-and-now, Autonomous is a perfect example of all the great things that fiction can do. It’s as close to action-packed, emotionally charged science (fiction) journalism as you might hope to find. Explore Newitz’s world and you’ll return knowing a lot more about your own.
This is also the effect of talking with Annalee Newitz in person. Autonomous was the result of her work as a journalist, and as we sat down to talk about it, our conversation flowed from one mind-blowing bullet point to the next. We talked around the plot without talking too much about the plot, and she knows her science just as well as she knows her fiction.
In The Imperial Radch Trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy), Ann Leckie created a space opera-style universe with the hard-headed hermetic depth of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a kick-ass through-line hard-SF military narrative and an insightful emotional core that re-thought gender. That left her a lot of room to play, and in Provenance she does just that, offering readers a coming-of-age heist-in-space novel that feels a lot like what you might hope for were we to resurrect Jane Austen and tasked her with the creation of an SF heroine. Provenance is understated and brilliantly imagined, thought-provoking and often hilarious fun.
Readers who missed Leckie’s trilogy need not worry, as Provenance stands quite well on its own; those who enjoyed the trilogy will find something rather different here, but equally inventive and adept. When we meet Ingray Aughskold, she’s in trouble and not handling it well. She’s one of six adopted children in the Aughskold household, and certain that Danach, her rather nasty older brother (also adopted, but from better circumstances) will be the one to take their mother’s title of Netano. Ingray has tried to pull off a rescue, we realize, and it’s not gone well. Her primary response to this and the other obstacles she fails to overcome is to cry.
Even as Ingray resigns herself to deal with the problems she’s created, readers will slowly begin to adopt and adore her. Hwae, her home, is part of a very complicated interstellar society (The Radch Empire), which is a delight to unpack. On Hwae, one’s wealth and position are partially determined by the possession (or not) of “vestiges,” relics and keepsakes that reference events, people and places of personal or societal import. The provenance of these items is critical and unquestioned. Flailing and failing, Ingray is forced to be particularly skeptical of not just herself, but the rest of her world as well. For readers, the true joy is determining which cracks are the result of our ignorance of the world as readers and foreigners, so to speak, and which are part and parcel of the fabric of Leckie’s carefully crafted universe.
Leckie is a master of powerful prose that gives us emotional depth even as we are trying to suss just how the world works. Her spectrum of sexuality is superbly crafted, and her sense of character rings utterly true. And while there are big questions to be answered, there are also small moments of honesty, cowardice and valor to play through as well. There’s a wonderfully sly romance afoot, and a series of set-pieces that are outstandingly visual and tense. We meet a drily comedic alien, the Geck ambassador, and Captain Tic Uisine, a resourceful rogue with a talent for running mechs remotely. Our antagonist’s ambitions are eminently understandable, while our protagonist’s weaknesses equally empathetic. The upshot is that every scene is chock-a-block with characters we enjoy doing something that is fun, mysterious, exciting and emotionally engaging.
Leckie has a lot of fun with the Imperial Radch in Provenance, and as a reader, I’d be thrilled to see her follow up these characters, or any others in this universe. The triumphs of Provenance are many. It’s a fantastic stand-alone novel, a wonderful introduction to a space-opera universe that’s fresh, different, weird and foreign, yet ultimately grokkable and relevant to the here and now. Provenance is a novel that shows a mature talent making merry by letting her readers knock about in a well-worn universe. It’s fresh, wild science fiction wedded to the virtues of timeless storytelling, important and yet light-hearted. Leckie’s future is intelligent, imaginative, but most importantly fun. That this universe was created in our universe can only be a good sign for both.
I had a blast chatting with Ann Leckie about Provenance and the universe of The Imperial Radch, even as the book itself gave me chills of space opera perfection. The dense language evoked memories of my first encounter with Dune, and we talked about the inspirations and inclination that went into building the work. And yes, I admit that I did ask the spell-check question, because part of the joy of reading this book is Leckie’s ability to craft a semantic version of the future.
The word “cemetery” might first conjure up your own local variant, a big lawn studded somewhat regularly with cement tombstones. It’s a place you might not think about much, until you read 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die by Loren Rhoads. Rhoads innocent-seeming travel guide is actually a thought-provoking look at life, death and everything in-between. Gorgeously photographed and stunningly well-traveled and researched 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die the perfect logical endpoint of all bucket lists.
After an admirably eloquent and brief introduction, Rhoads offers up exactly what is advertised. Divvied up by location, she finds the most destinations in the US. She then goes ’round the world. Every destination gets at last one photo, sometimes more, and they are all top notch. The whole book is in color; it’s a gorgeous thing just to look at. Moreover, Rhoads is a great writer, whose summaries are much more than mere travelogue. They’re miniature essays that touch on all the things suggested by cemeteries, which is to say, life’s rich pageant.
The utility of this book is manifold. If you want to ponder just about any aspect of life, these elaborate visions of where we house our dead will take you places you might never expect. If you’re looking for a reason to travel just about anywhere, you will find it here. And if you are planning on travelling just about anywhere, this book is likely to serve up a perfect little side trip.
Whether or not you are planning on rising from the chair in which you read it anytime soon, this book has something to say to you. It says it well, it says it with both eloquent prose and beautiful photographs, it is a pragmatic assessment and an inducement to whimsy, and it does all of this 199 times. Loren Rhoads 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die is arguably the best, indeed the only travel guide for the living and the dead. The grass is always greener on your grave.
As far as I was concerned, 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die had another benefit as well, which is the opportunity to speak with the author, about my favorite places in the book and all the odd thought-paths those places took me. I thought Loren Rhoads every bit as riveting as her book, and lots of fun to talk to. Here’s a link to our lightning round, which served up something different from the main interview.
“There are love stories galore,” Cole, the teenaged boy tells us, “This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.” Welcome to the mind of an average American adolescent boy, and to the new novel by Daniel (Lemony Snicket) Handler. The funny thing is that while there’s a lot of sex, none of it feels it dirty. Handler’s headlong plunge into the consciousness of Cole is not a book-length letter to Penthouse. It’s a powerful reminder our endless and intimate connections to one another – and story.
From the get-go, Handler has a lot of fun here. He’s a smart writer and commits fearlessly to his premise, with a stream-of-consciousness style that is the reading equivalent of a fast moving, ice-cold river. It’s a powerful, immersive, wake-you-the-hell-up experience. Handler’s prose is the key. He really nails the propulsive/impulsive nature of the in-between mind. Cole cannot control his own thoughts, let alone his actions. While we all might know this in theory, and even a bit in memory, Handler’s evocation bypasses knowledge with immediacy of art.
Cole’s life is in no way exemplary or odd, but our experience of it in prose elevates the ordinary to the sublime. Cole has a close friend, Alec, and eventually hooks up with the new girl, Giselle. Alec is close fit with the rest of the school, while Giselle, an exchange student, is a bit outside the range of normal. Handler’s focus is close enough to be uncomfortable, but clear enough to be uncompromising. He experiments with Alec, dishes dirt, and finds his match in Giselle. But even as we are fascinated, appalled or terrified by the details, we, like Cole begin to discover that there is more than mere event in our lives.
What we discover, to our pleasure, as contrasted in our minds at least, the sorts of pleasures that Cole is pursuing, are events transformed into story by Handler’s relentlessly internalized stare. In spite of himself, Cole is not simply a hedonist. Like it or not, sex turns out to be a connection, a story element from which we may not so easily extricate ourselves. Cole’s vision is not an episodic series of sexual encounters. Word by word, it becomes a life.
All the Dirty Parts certainly lives up to its title, and the sum thereof, which is to say, that in a sparse, smart slip of a novel, Daniel Handler manages to convey far more than the words on the page. This impossible-to-put-down novel is a dare. Step in, be swept away. Life, sex, story. This is human!
So, OK, yes, the AKA, matters, and Lemony Snicket has a new title out as well, The Bad Mood and the Stick, a book for very young readers illustrated by Mathew Forsythe. Between Snicket & Forsythe, plan on a delightful time. The illustration are charming and the title itself confirms that you’ll find the same droll sense of humor at work. It’s lovely, and an argument for publishing children’s books as a box set of hangable art. Make no mistake, the next time I’m in a bad mood, I’ll be sure to have a stick to hand.
In person, Daniel Handler is just as smart and I guess, vexatious (in the best possible sense of the word, and there is one in MY dictionary) as you might expect. Which is to say that even in our lightning round, which you can download by following this link, you can hear that engaging, hilarious pragmatism at work.
Follow this link to listen to the long-form version, or lean in close and listen up to the dark secrets of American adolescence.
Our world is chock-a-block with rabbit holes, into which we hurl ourselves, knowingly and otherwise. Work is the classic, and nowhere has work become more of a rabbit hole than in the Silicon Valley startup culture. Sign up and your life can disappear, generally regarded as a fine outcome. That’s Lois Clary’s story as Sourdough by Robin Sloan begins. She’s a software engineer at General Dexterity, a firm that makes robotic arms, and offers its employees Slurry, a sort of liquid version of Soylent Green, not made from people. At first, her life feels pretty simple, but like most lives, it gets complicated unexpectedly and in a hurry.
Robin Sloan’s second novel is a pure delight. When you think he’s going to turn left, he blasts down the center, and when you think you’re in for smooth ride, things get enjoyably bumpy. Lois, not such big fan of Slurry, hones in on a hole-in-the-wall take-out restaurant and has them deliver variations on the same dinner every night; soup and sourdough. When the brothers who run the joint close up shop, they give their “Number 1 customer!” a present – a flagon of sourdough starter, so she can make her own bread. It proves to be another rabbit hole, for Lois and the reader, and both happily disappear into the gently weird world as crafted by Robin Sloan.
Sourdough is fun to read in a variety of ways. Sloan is funny, but not jokey. He can go off into fascinating byways that end up circling back to the plot as we know it. He loves all his characters, and you will too. Moreover, in a compact and concise space, Sourdough does all the things big novels do. We meet real people in real lives that are slightly and believably weirder and more interesting than ours. You’re likely to read it faster than you expect, and you’ll feel fulfilled by the whole scope of the work, even if, like a great loaf of bread, you want more.
Sloan delivers more as he contemplates and conjugates start[er/up] culture at large. Colonies of microorganisms, the micro-biome, food culture, secret markets, and company cultures bloom wildly in Lois’ life. The culture that created the sourdough starter – a nebulous batch of worldly gypsies called the Mazg feels real enough to send you to the search engine. Sloan is skilled enough to suggest a lot in an easygoing manner and smart enough to let the reader make the connections.
There’s a quite bit of magic in Sourdough. The starter seems to have a mind of its own, and the novel itself is light and fun and yet filled with both wisdom and engaging entertainment. It’s both deeply weird and utterly, openly enjoyable. It is, in all senses of the word, charming. Like the most powerful magic, it is a charm that hangs around afterwards. Even after you finish the book, your mind will drift down the rabbit holes created by Robin Sloan. Just follow the scent of fresh-baked bread.
In person, Robin Sloan is every bit a fun as his writing. As it happens, I encountered Sourdough shortly after a personal bread-baking renaissance, and I have to admit that when Sloan went into his King Arthur flour stories, I was already there. Slone and I spoke about the real-world mirrors for some of his fictional creations and he let me on where to get the really good flour (not to knock King Arthur!) To hear a lightning round interview with Robin Sloan, follow this link to download, or just listen below.
We are well-served to remind ourselves that humans are predators, monsters with hard leather shoes. But like most things human, our monsters come in a variety of shapes and guises. The phrase “human monster” tends to conjure up serial killers. Hannibal Lecter, for example, or The Prophet from Meg Gardiner’s recent book, Unsub. Alas, you need not be a member of this club to lay claim to the title of monster. With My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent demonstrates that one man, Martin Alveston, with one victim, his daughter Julia, can provide more than enough monster. Tallent writes like an angel, which is to say that he sees the beauty but knows the devil.
My Absolute Darling is set in the forests of Northern California’s Mendocino Coast, and the prose is appropriately lush, rich and dripping. Martin Alveston lives as far away from polite society as he can. He distrusts technology, the modern world, and comfort. He’s well-armed, and he’s taught his ripening daughter well how to use those guns.
Julia, AKA “Kibble” (Martin’s name for her) AKA “Turtle,” is smart. precocious and has been truly twisted into knots. Early on, after pages of gorgeous nature writing and scene setting, those same prose talents are applied to a scene of graphic abuse, as experienced by Turtle. It’s horrifying beyond belief. Consider yourself warned and advised. The writing is powerful and the story is told from Turtle’s perspective. What we see, that Martin does not, is that he has created a hero equal to his evil. As much as we loathe him, we love her.
But that’s not totally true, and here is where Tallent’s talent shows. Martin is prone to rants about Our Modern Life, and Tallent gives him some pretty persuasive arguments. He’s not just evil and twisted, he’s pretty smart. But his daughter is smarter, and she has the advantage as it were, of having been raised by a monster. The dynamic between father and daughter is becoming increasingly unstable. Turtle’s grandfather is still on the scene and on the remote rural property where they live. Turtle herself is in school, barely, where she attracts the attentions of her teachers and fellow students. My Absolute Darling turns out to be a taut bow, ready to fire at the slightest provocation.
The true pleasure of this novel is to experience Tallent’s astonishing prose as he carefully crafts two towering characters in his exquisitely rendered world. Every time Turtle meets a teen friend, picks up a gun, talks to a teacher, is abused by her father (not too often, thankfully), or even just hangs with him in a moment of simulated normalcy, the readers wants to stand up and cheer her on. We become invested in these characters, in this landscape. We want it to break and we want it to work.
My Absolute Darling is a powerhouse. Readers might see Turtle as a nascent superheroine, but she needs no super powers. She (and Gabriel Tallent) will kick your reading ass from here to eternity and back. The deal with monsters is this; make ’em evil, make us hate ’em. Make us believe in them. (All too easy in Martin’s case.) Then introduce us to the human who is their match. In this example, Turtle. The problem for predators is the existence of other predators.
The problem for Gabriel Tallent is that he chose arguably the most difficult and off-putting subject in our culture as the topic of his novel. But in our conversation, we discuss how and why he chose this perspective. I do admit that while I read I had to occasionally remind myself that the setting was California, not Appalachia. Tallent is extremely well-spoken and he took an unusual route in writing the book, which we do discuss. Follow this link to hear our lightning round conversation, or listen below.
The gap between what we intuit to be true and what we can prove to be true will be closed by language, not science. Words will parse reality, and craft for us ladders and systems by which we may remake the world. Which is to say that while neuroscience may unlock the secrets of the mind, philosophers and writers will necessarily tell us what they are and how they my help us.
In Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright applies his witty, restless intelligence and superb writerly craft to explore, to map out, the terrain between the Buddhist language of mindful meditation and enlightenment and 21st century psychology, informed by neuroscience. The result is a very funny, engaging, even page-turning story that manages to be a light-hearted deep-dive into the human paradox of self, not-self, nothingness and we can save the world, one breath at a time.
From the get-go, Wright makes it clear that this is not a book for experts, and that this is not the “woo” you are looking for. He begins the book with a “Note to Readers” so engagingly readable, you won’t be able to stop afterwards. Then, he urges us to, in the words of the Matrix, “take the red pill,” to see the world for what it is. How exactly that works, he reveals in less than 300 pages of whip-smart writing that transcends memoir, philosophy, science and journalism. It turns out Wright believes that he has a pretty good handle on the solution to much of what ails humanity, and a strong argument to back up his assertion.
Wright’s book is on a quest to understand much of what drove William James’ work, and more, based on the latest science. We would like to think that ultimately, neuroscience and philosophy have a relationship similar to chemistry and physics, in that one is an organic incarnation of the other. Wright manages to explore that abstraction by combining his personal experiences in meditation, aided by his assertion that he’s not a good at it, with interviews from those who are. In his frustrations and in his (and their) successes, Wright reveals the bits of our minds that we’re not are running the show.
Wright’s book is tautly paced and compulsively readable. He knows when to dive into the more intricate and abstract aspects of Buddhist thought, and when to pull back to a personal experience that as often as not demonstrates his inability to grasp then easily himself. When, for example, he fails the most basic breath meditations, his recounting of how he was remonstrated by his instructor is a major “Aha!” moment for the reader.
Wright takes us well beyond the meditation mat, in both Buddhist philosophy and neuroscience. There’s a great vision based on the work of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, and it’s matched by his take on the Samadhiraja Sutra. Wright combines humanity and authority in his writing, leaving doctrine behind as he uses story to get us from seeing to understanding, and understanding the difference between the two,
Buddhism can seem to offer up a series of incomprehensible paradoxes, key concepts that can seem inconceivable and thus off-putting. Wright is a master at confronting these head-on in a hard-headed manner that cuts through the confusion. One of our very human intuitions is that all of this should be pretty damn simple. That’s not exactly true. What you will get from Robert Wright and Why Buddhism is True is that of course it is not simple. But it is very, very human.
Not surprisingly, Robert Wright in person is his own best voice. After a few seconds, the combination of keenly-sharp crystalline intelligence and self-deprecating humor wil slice away any doubts you have as to the content of what he’s saying. He is so right-there in the room with you, it’s like having your own personal science fair, therapist, and philosopher. He’s a relentless synthesizer of ideas and belief systems. Follow this link to our lightning round conversation, or listen below.
We love the ineffable, from terror to charm. Shockingly, terror is rather easy, but there is a lot to be afraid of in this world. Charm – the word implies magic, does it not? – is considerably more difficult. Consider this, then, the Miracle of the Summer. Less by Andrew Sean Greer has more charm than you’ll find in one place anywhere. Greer has crafted a lovely book about love and given it a cast of characters who will charm you. A glass of wine, a back porch in the sun, and you are set.
Arthur Less is considerably less set. He’s a sinking mid-list author whose long-term, live-in boyfriend has flown the coop to get married – to someone else. Arthur is invited, of course, and it is equally certain he does not wish to attend. Only by setting himself up with a summer of book-related travel can he escape, and his escape is ours. we learn all this from an oddly affectionate but rarely present narrator. Who is telling the story and why? This matters, almost as much as the enjoyment we find in Arthur’s travails and travels. We will find out, but what state will poor Arthur be in by then?
Less is a potted travelogue, a story of a journey that goes entertainingly badly for the characters involved, but wonderfully for the reader. In that eventful journey, expect to find Arthur Less in Mexico, Paris, the Sahara, India, Berlin, New York and other less palatable destinations. But wherever he goes, he in rendered i the most enjoyable, hilarious prose you can imagine. Less is less a character study, though there is plenty of that, and more of a comedy about the foibles of those who love, are in love and are loved. A translation chapter set in Germany is unforgettable and likely to prevent precisely the sort of laughter it inspires, which is to say, you’ll be less inclined to make that mistake.
Greer gets a lot of mileage out of a pretty big cast. The key here is that Greer the writer is crazy in love with all his characters, no matter how sketchily (not very, but) these people behave. The result is that wherever the book lands, we’re happy. And, given that we’re reading a travelogue, Greer’s ability to keep our eyes and his on Arthur Less and his prize (whatever he may decide that to be) is pretty astonishing. There’s more than a bit of Around the World in 80 Days to be found here, but the upshot is not episodic. The tour we are getting is internal as much as it is external.
Whip-smart and wonderful, Less has a mannered, classic feel to it. This is due in part to its clever narrative structure, which proves to be closely tied to plot and character. But it’s also clear that Andrew Sean Greer is having a good time, that he wants to share the joy. And joy, like love, terror and charm, is ineffable. Only in action, only in language is love clear. Immerse yourself in Less and you’re going to find just how moving the ineffable can be.