I just finished Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Less”. It’s a really good read, with lots of writing you just want to quote for the pleasure of it. So I will. Here are some choice bits from “Less”, none of which give away the plot, by the way:
On Visiting New York City
“New York is a city of eight million people, approximately seven million of whom will be furious when they hear you were in town and didn’t meet them for an expensive dinner, five million furious you didn’t visit their new baby, three million furious you didn’t see their new show, one million furious you didn’t call for sex, but only five actually available to meet you. It is completely reasonable to call none of them.”
At a Bad Broadway Musical
“Like a bad lay, a bad musical can still do its job perfectly well. By the end, Arthur Less is in tears, sobbing in his seat, and he thinks he has been sobbing quietly until the lights come up and the woman seated next to him turns and says, “Honey, I don’t know what happened in your life, but I am so sorry,” and gives him a lilac-scented embrace. Nothing happened to me, he wants to say to her. Nothing happened to me. I’m just a homosexual at a Broadway show.”
“Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.”
“Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get the coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”
Berlin is all around them, the Fernsehturm rising high in the east like the Times Square New Year’s Ball, the lights of Charlottenburg Palace flowing faintly in the west, and all around the glorious junkyard of the city: abandoned warehouses and chic new lofts and boats all done in fairy lights, concrete Honecker residential blocks imitating the old nineteenth-century buildings, the black parks hiding Soviet war memorials, the little candles somebody lights each night before the doors where Jews were dragged from their houses. The old dance halls where elderly couples, still wearing the beige of their Communist lives, still telling secrets in the learned whisper of a lifetime of wiretapping, dance polkas to live bands in rooms decorated in silver Mylar curtains. The basements where American drag queens sell tickets for British expats to listen to french DJs, in rooms where water flows freely down the walls and old gasoline jugs hang from the ceiling, lit from within. The Currywurst stands where Turks sift sneezing powder onto fried hot dogs, the subterranean bakeries where the same hot dogs are baked into croissants, the raclette stands where Tyroleans scrape melting cheese onto the bread and ham, decorating it with pickles. The markets already setting up in local squares to sell cheap socks, stolen bicycles, and plastic lamps. The sex dens with stoplights signaling which clothing to remove, the dungeons of men in superhero costumes of black vinyl with their names embroidered on them, the dark rooms and back alleys where everything possible is happening. And the clubs everywhere, only just getting started, where even middle-aged married folk are sniffing lines of ketamine off black bathroom tile, and teenagers are dosing each other’s drinks. In the club, as he later recalls, a woman gets onto the dance floor and really lets go during a Madonna song, really takes over the floor, and people are clapping, hooting, she’s losing her mind out there, and her friends are calling her name: “Peter Pan! Peter Pan!” Actually, it isn’t a woman; it’s Arthur Less. Yes, even old American writers are dancing like it is still the eighties in San Francisco, like the sexual revolution has been won, like the war is over and Berlin had been liberated, one’s own self has been liberated; and what the Bavarian in his arms is whispering is true, and everyone, everyone, even Arthur Less – is loved.
(As a born Berliner myself, I declare that has to be one of the all time great literary evocations of the city in history!)
What does the 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 oceanic monotony of the dunes. Not the flavorless grass she chews, then chews again, in a sullen struggle of digestion. Not the hellish day. Not the heavenly night. Not sunset. Not sunrise. Not the sun or the moon or the stars. And surely not the heavy American, a few pounds overweight but not bad for his age, taller than most and top heavy, tipping from side to side as she carries this human, this Arthur Less, pointlessly across the Sahara.
Religion in India
It seems to begin before dawn with the Muslims, when a mosque at the edge of the mangrove forest softly announces, in a lullaby voice, the morning call to prayer. Not to be outdone, the local Christians soon crank up pop-sounding hymns that last anywhere from one to three hours. This is followed by the cheerful, though overamplified, kazoo-like refrain from the Hindu temple that reminds Less of the ice cream truck from his childhood. Then comes a later call to prayer. Then the Christians decide to ring some bronze bells. And so on. There are sermons and live singers and thunderous drum performances. In this way, the faiths alternate throughout the day, as at a music festival growing louder and louder until, during the outright cacophony of sunset, the Muslims, who began the whole thing, declare victory by projecting not only the evening call to prayer but the prayer itself in its entirety. After that, the jungle falls into silence. Perhaps this is the Buddhists’ sole contribution. Every morning, it starts again.
Living with Genius
What was it like to live with genius?
Like living alone.
Like living alone with a tiger
Everything had to be sacrificed for the work. Plans had to be canceled, meals had to be delayed; liquor had to be bought, as soon as possible, or else all poured into the sink. Money had to be rationed or spent lavishly, changing daily. The sleep schedule was the poet’s to make, and it was as often late nights as it was early mornings. The habit was the demon pet in the house; the habit, the habit, the habit; the morning coffee and books and poetry, the silence until noon. Could he be tempted by a morning stroll? He could, he always could; it was the only addiction where the sufferer longed for anything but the desired; but a morning walk meant work undone, and suffering, suffering, suffering. Keep the habit, help the habit; lay out the coffee and poetry; keep the silence; smile when he walked sulkily out of the bathroom. Taking nothing personally. And did you sometimes put on music that might unlock the doubt and fear? Did you love it, the rain dance every day? Only when it rained.
Where did the genius come from? Where did it go?
Like allowing another lover into the house to live with you, someone you’d never met but whom you knew he loved more than you.
(This last one would make a great actors’ audition monolog:)
The Love of One’s Life
“She told me she met the love of her life. … You read poems about it, you hear stories about it, you hear Sicilians talk about being struck by lighting. We know there’s no love of your life. Life isn’t terrifying like that. It’s walking the fucking dog so the other can sleep in, it’s doing taxes, it’s cleaning the bathroom without hard feelings. It’s having an ally in life. It’s not fire, it’s not lighting. It’s what she always had with me. Isn’t it? But what if she’s right, Arthur? What if the Sicilians are right? That it’s this earth shattering feeling she felt? Something I’ve never felt. Have you? …
What if one day you meet someone, Arthur, and it feels like it could never be anyone else? Not because other people are less attractive, or drink too much, or have issues in bed, or have to alphabetize every fucking book or organize the dishwasher in some way you just can’t live with. It’s because they aren’t this person. This woman Janet met. Maybe you go through your whole life and never meet them, and think love is all these other things, but if you do meet them, God help you! Because then, ka-blam! You’re screwed. The way Janet is. She ruined our life for it! But what if that’s real?”