PPRL: Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (winner, 2018)

It's kind of wild that I randomly picked this book to read when I did. It hits on themes and questions currently crawling through my own life (I, too, am slouching towards fifty; I, too, have a kite's string of relationships unfurling behind me; I, too, look back at them with a mixture of nostalgia and horror, wondering what if anything the sum of it all means). 

I loved it so very much. It's energetic and wholeheartedly sweet, with a delightful cycle of premise to punchline that barely lets you stop smiling. The protagonist is painfully relatable in his quest to suppress, escape, or otherwise dispense with the less palatable facts of his life. An ex he can't get over. His own aging, reflected back at him, most unwelcomely, in the lined faces of old lovers. The slapstick routine that constitutes his physical and intellectual movement through the world. Arthur Less grows more and more lovable, so that by novel's end when you can barely believe the astonishingly happy ending he's about to bumble into, you cannot begrudge him one bit of it -- even if you harbor no such exquisite expectations for yourself.

Adding to the fun, Greer is an absolute poet:

On and on the plane convulses in the moonlight, like a man turning into a werewolf.

And when the plan lands at last--the windows revealing the vast nighttime circuit board of Mexico City--Less find himself, alone, applauding their survival.

A movie screen begins to unroll noisily from the ceiling like a mad relative wandering downstairs and has to be sent back into hiding.

Less feels his mind drifting away like a spaceman from an airlock, off into the asteroid belt of his own concerns.

Or how about this:

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 managers 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. Not the oceanic monotony of the dunes. Not the flavorless grass she chews, then chews again, then chews again in a sullen struggle of digestion...

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Were I to teach this novel I'd invite students to

1. Explore the role of name play in the novel, from the ridiculous H.H.H. Mandern, to Vandevander, to the rich source material in Less's own name (the chapter titles, for instance). 

2. Consider this passage:

It is, after all, almost a miracle they are here. Not because they've survived the booze, the hashish, the migraines. Not that at all. It's that they've survived everything in life, humiliations and disappointments and heartaches and missed opportunities, bad dads and bad jobs and bad sex and bad drugs, all the trips and mistakes and face-plants of life, to have made it to fifty and have made it here: to this frosted-cake landscape, these mountains of gold, the little table they can now see sitting on the dune, set with olives and pita and glasses and wine chilling on ice, with the sun waiting more patiently than any camel for their arrival.

How is this conclusion both underscored repeatedly by the novel yet somehow also undermined by Arthur's ceaseless refusal to accept his own realities?

3. Choose a chapter from the novel and argue how it best encapsulates (or fundamentally establishes) Arthur's trajectory. 

4. Compare and contrast the arc of Arthur's life with that of his latest protagonist.

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Words!

mynah: an Asian and Australasian starling that typically has dark plumage, gregarious behavior, and a loud call

amphora: a tall ancient Greek or Roman jar with two handles and a narrow neck (images)

djellaba: a loose hooded cloak, typically woolen, of a kind traditionally worn by Arabs (images)

crenellate: provide (a wall of a building) with battlements.

muezzin: a man who calls Muslims to prayer from the minaret of a mosque

weir: a low dam built across a river to raise the level of water upstream or regulate its flow (images)

madrassa: a Muslim school, college, or university that is often part of a mosque

Pantagruelian: enormous (from Pantagruel, one of a 16th century pentalogy about giants)