“An eel of panic wriggles through him as he searches the room for exits, but life has no exits.” Andrew Sean Greer
“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad,” of course I’m fortunate enough to be overlooking a morbidly calm lake, with low hanging fog that hovers as if an old man’s genitals over the precipitous surface of Mt. Konocti, my devoted dog rests silently by my slippered feet, but as Hemingway claims, “there is no friend as loyal as a book.”
Larry’s talking shop on a conference call at the “game table” set cattywampus to the long green couch. How appropriate. I try and turn a deaf ear to the endless chatter, the lexicon as foreign as a German vending machine featuring premier cheeses, the only term I recognize is CD. I thought those were confined to museums, but what do I know?
Ann Patchett recommends this book, Less, with her whole heart, and it’s not just that Ann bears my late Mother’s name, it’s Ann Patchett. I’d read the Three Little Pigs if she recommended it. So here, “I sit for hours doing nothing,” as my amour likes to observe, reading this book, with words spun together as if cotton candy, I pluck them off the page in bite-size chunks, letting them linger on my tongue.
Andrew Sean Greer is not only a Pulitzer Prize recipient (“not Pew-lit-sir, but Pull-it-sir”),” he is raising the curtain on our shared human comedy,” so it says on the back cover. Come along with me as I stowaway with Arthur Less on this impromptu excursion, emotional acuity our souvenir du jour, as Greer allows unrivaled access to Less’s innermost thoughts, and to my endless delight, I find myself lost in the “dog-eared pages” of this extraordinary novel.
I fell in love with the main character, Arthur Less, on page one, chronicled by “his slim shadow, in fact, that of his younger self, but at nearly fifty he is like those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolored beautifully until they match the trees.” I mean, who writes like that?
Less says of his lover, “Freddy Pelu is a man who doesn’t need to be told, before take-off, to secure his own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Brilliant, eerily familiar, and this sets the stage for a searing adventure.
Here I sit with the filtered light streaming in from the wall of windows across the room, highlighting my aged hands on the dusty keyboard, I realize this book has me thinking about my own pesky decisions, how the bad ones rise to the surface as if ice cubes in a well made Vieux Carre; the time I revealed a long-held secret after too much champagne, or that striped jumpsuit I had to have because it screamed who I wanted to be, nier we forget the time I decided to wallpaper the dining room with such a disastrous schizophrenic pattern my dinner guests actually got nauseous before they finished their salad. It was so bad my father-in-law offered to pay to have it removed.
But there is one decision as Less proclaims, “whatever self chose it I love,” because as both Less and I have come to realize, our decisions can be life-changing.
I made mine when I was “faded like the sofa in the living room,” I threw caution to the wind, took a leap of faith, and attempted to procure a graduate degree late in life, exchanging my worn recliner for that of a wooden school desk, sized for someone two decades younger.
I squeezed myself in, as did Arthur Less with relationships, invitations, and literary acclaim.
Our beloved Less has a blue suit, and claims “without the suit there is no Arthur Less.” I feel much the same, without that paper, stashed in the oak desk banished to the guest room, there is no Cheryl.
Freddy Pelu says when asked why he became a high school teacher, “I think it’s mostly that I don’t like people my age,” and I had to sit there for a while recovering from the enormity of this truth that just slapped me across the face. It doesn’t sting as much as you would think?
“By his forties, all he has managed to grow was a gentle sense of himself, akin to the transparent carapace of a soft-shelled crab…which can pierce his thin hide and bring out the same shade of blood as ever.” Less’s sensitivities have thinned with age, his armor long since abandoned, he’s easily bruised by vitriolic individuals, and this I believe this is why he is so easy to love, his vulnerability reminds us of our own.
Less and I both worry it’s over, not our lives, but our ability to have an impact. Do you know what I mean? I’ve done nothing significant, nothing with gravity, nothing to add to the betterment of society. Could this be a universal fear? Or is just living enough, being good to the dog, raising the kids, decorating the coffee table with attractive vintage pieces, offering my aging body to my partner in the dark, my appeal flattening out as if a pancake on a grill someone forgot to flip?
It’s taken a year of sheltering in place for me to understand these poignant words, “after all these years, Less doesn’t even know where he’s stored,” as I weed through decades of paraphernalia, I find parts of myself embedded in the characterization of things, the ceramic lady from Spain sequestered to a crowded bookcase, the picture of my late brother-in-law showing off his last big catch, the sterling silver buried so deep in a cupboard after my mother’s death it took two years to find, the baptismal gown hand-sewed by my Aunt now worn by my children’s children, the dress with rose ribbons Larry gifted me on my sixteenth birthday, the vases, the tokens, the books…to simplify means ridding me of myself.
Less doesn’t lose himself in things, he’s a man, he does this with his relationships, which I believe is the only way to clearly see oneself, through the eyes of another.
Do we aspire to be forever young, “or do we do the opposite – forswear all that, and let your hair go gray, and wear elegant sweaters that cover your belly, and smile on past pleasures that will never come again?” The truth is I no longer want to rollerblade from San Francisco Park to the beach, or camp along the Russian River in a worn sleeping bag, and I will never again be spotted running through the neighborhood in a sports bra and shorts, those memories only serve to warm me like a fuzzy blanket in the winter of my life.
As Less says, “nothing to do but laugh about it. True for everything.”
I’m beginning to think by some queer circumstance that Arthur Less and I are twins born exactly a decade apart. It’s as if his words were torn from my addled brain, I feel exposed as you do in dreams when you can’t find your clothes, caught in this alternative universe, I spend the night trying “to exit a room while remaining inside it.” I do this at parties too.
I thought the endless chatter of my own insecurities were private, secrets held as if a pinkie promise between me and myself, but then I enter the private world of Arthur Less, “still in free fall from the broken bridge of his last hopes,” and I find myself reaching for that elusive baton, handed off in the endless race against time.
Larry and I have escaped to Lake County for a few days, I wanted to write, he to engage with the needs of an aging
spouse house. The topography is dotted with charming vineyards and tasting rooms, and the applicability of this passage stopped me cold, “Less opens his eyes to a countryside of autumn vineyards, endless rows of the crucified plants, a pink rosebush always planted at the end.” See, the rosebush will succumb to disease before the vines, and after sitting with this thought for a moment I realize this is how it is to live without a mother, no one is able to warn you of impending doom, “like the canary in the cave.”
My faith is something I cling to, as if a rosary, the salvific beads passing nimbly through my fingers, but when life is spinning out of control, like Less, “it’s the work, the habit, the words, that fixes me. Nothing else can be depended on.”
Less claims of his observant lover, “that’s what it was like to live with genius,” hiding is impossible, as if a movie with subtitles, the truth scrolls across the bottom of the screen, and as it says in Hebrews chapter four, “nothing in all creation is hidden, everything is naked and exposed before the one to whom we are accountable.”
“I think there’s something between genius and mediocrity,” Less whines, Bahaha, no there’s not!
I wish it wasn’t so but I think we’ve all lived this idiom, “walking alone into the room…looking as soaked in misery as a trifle pudding soaked in rum.” These images both sweet and alluring have tantalized me time and again, “my tongue bruised with errors,” the purple contusion rising to the surface with the morning sun, leaning against the headboard of my rumbled bed, cringing at my impudence.
Less, like the repetitive word that racks the brain when an overindulgence has occurred, the double meaning all the more potent.
No one cares if I’m part of a contingent of large sweater-wearing women, or if my container qualifies as an antique, the point being – do I still have my wits about me? My twin Less says, “Robert has never been kind to his body; he’s worn it like an old leather coat tossed in oceans and left crumpled in corners, and Less saw its marks and scars and aches not as failures of age but the opposite: the evidence, as Raymond Chandler once wrote, of ‘a gaudy life.’ It is only the carrier of that wonderful mind, after all.”
Are you allowing this cotton candy to linger on your tongue?
“Life so often arrives all of a sudden. And who knows which side you will find yourself on?” I’ve always believed in my ability to absorb new information, but changing my mind is as if a guard at Buckingham Palace, it’s stoically replaced. I admit at times I avoid those hard conversations because I don’t want to let go of cherished ideas whose time has come. Things like happily ever after, morality, even my concept of sin, but as Less has found, “it is like pouring water from an old leaking bucket into a shining new one; it feels almost suspiciously easy.”
Sometime when the evening light is just right, after long steam in the shower, and my hair has followed my anxious ministrations, I feel as if, “the beauty of my youth, somehow taken from its winter storage, and given back to me in middle age.” It doesn’t need saying, by the end of the evening, as Cinderella can attest, middle-age has made its unwelcome return.
I’ve always wondered why I cling to words as if a besotted lover, twirling them over and over in my mind, smiling at the emotions they evoke. Now I know why…
Life is a sandbox that someone has kindly stocked with vowels, consonants, and punctuation marks. Straight away I set to work building my narrative, a philosophy if you will, only to have it washed away season after season. I could rebuild? Or should I man up so to speak, venture out of the box like Less, take up residence in a new adventure? As Hemingway warns, “when you start to live outside yourself, it’s all dangerous.”
“For are we not puppets of our own imagination,” Andrew Sean Greer.
I’m Living in the Gap, lost in the words of Andrew Sean Greer, as if an endless game of Candy Land, I can’t get out.
*All unattributed quotations are ascribed to Andrew Sean Greer.
*Vieux Carre, a cocktail, literal meaning old square ~ Bahaha