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Genevieve Smith on
All the Sad Young Literary Men: Two Takes: An Online Exclusive

Two Takes: An Online Exclusive

(Viking)

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008


All the Sad Young Literary Men
By Keith Gessen
(Viking)

Reviewed by Genevieve Smith

The characters in Keith Gessen's first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, will be familiar enough to many a young struggling writer in New York. The Brooklyn house parties, the failure to live up to early promise, the sinking feeling that being a writer is just a pretense for seducing more attractive women — it all rings true. This familiarity might help explain both the high praise and disdain that Gessen's book has so far generated among reviewers. In no less a revered outfit as The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates likened Gessen to F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose own first novel, This Side of Paradise, might be considered the proto-ASYLM. (In fact, the title of Gessen's book is a play on the title of a collection of stories by Fitzgerald.) Others have been less sparing. New York magazine, for which Gessen has often contributed, had this to say: “For about 40 thrilling pages, Gessen delivers one of the purest joys in all of literature: the ecstasy of watching a much-hyped young littérateur fall flat on his face,” before giving it some faint praise. For all the discussion — and there has been much discussion — of the book's merits, no one has contested that he has deftly chronicled a certain subset of young, well-educated New Yorkers.

Gessen is best known as a founder of the journal n+1, which has positioned itself as the mouthpiece for a new generation of young writers and thinkers. In its short life, n+1 has taken on climate change, hipsters, dating, “American writing today,” and all manner and matter of subjects in between. It’s difficult to read Gessen’s debut novel without this in mind. Fittingly, Gessen’s three protagonists, floundering young men with vaguely literary ambitions, are characterized by their historical and political concerns. Their stories unfold in alternating chapters, during which they argue about the Israeli occupation of Gaza and bemoan the Bush administration and impending environmental catastrophe. They are also men of their generation: they find dates on the Internet; they text-message.

The book begins with Mark, who, with his Russian wife Sasha, is eking out a meager existence in Queens — a predicament Gessen himself chronicled in an early n+1 essay. In later chapters, Mark becomes a graduate student at Syracuse — as Gessen also once was — in Russian history who is too distracted by Internet porn and would-be girlfriends to complete his dissertation. His research into the minority faction of the Russian revolution, the Mensheviks, seems to serve only as an extended, overburdened metaphor for his failed relationships. In the second narrative, told in the first person, we are introduced to Keith, who, like the author, has Russian immigrant parents, attends Harvard, and ends up being a successful writer in Brooklyn. Sam, the book's third protagonist, obsesses over his shrinking Google ranking while attempting (and failing) to write the great Zionist novel. For him, it is the history of Israel's sovereignty that serves as an analogy for a never-ending supply of life lessons.

While the particulars of each man’s struggles vary, the general problem remains the same: They are flummoxed, bamboozled, and overwhelmed by women. The complicated arithmetic of their lives has added up to a deep-seated feeling they are not having enough sex and not having it with the right women. “Sex was all I could think about,” Keith explains. “It seemed there was a truth in sex that I needed to have about myself.” The desired women tend to be smart and more accomplished than the male triad, though Gessen often portrays them as wounded birds, or is overly concerned with their womanly charms with which they are endowed. More than one description of the fairer sex involves a detailed account of breasts: they bulge against the stretched fabric of a turtleneck sweater, they press against the spandex of a tube top. And they — along with the women attached to them — have the overpowering ability to redirect the attention of the novel’s male protagonists away from the pressing matters of world history and current events, sinking them deep into a metaphorical cleavage. While the men in the book never meet, they are connected through overlapping lovers, the ultimate prize for their affection being a 22-year-old nymphet who is strikingly less complicated than the women she replaces. The women they date become a reflection of their own self-worth. Gessen makes this explicit in his rendering of Mark, for whom it is “as if only the women he dated could tell him who [he] was.”

It is difficult to feel unsympathetic to the plights of these men. Mark, Keith and Sam are recognizable types, thoroughly — perhaps even lovingly — rendered. But their redeemable qualities are few. Beyond documenting the travails of its characters, the book fails to have any larger resonance. While the Fitzgerald analogy might be apt in a certain sense — they both have a keen eye to the inner workings of their milieu — overtones of class, duty and obligation gave Fitzgerald’s stories a more complicated moral dynamism, while Gessen’s sad young men seem to be motivated by little more than doing better in life than “the people they went to college with.” Best known for skewering criticism, Gessen applies the same wit and precision to his book, but those talents might not convince the most sympathetic readers to spend 256 pages revisiting a fictional version of their younger selves behaving badly.

In profiles and interviews, Gessen has helped foster the sense that the substance of the novel has been taken from his own life, fueling speculation that the book is a roman á clef for a young New York literati. A recent profile in the New York Times opens with a touch football game similar to the weekly games played by the fictional Keith. In the same article, we find the real Keith bemoaning his Amazon rank — a self-deprecating gesture reminiscent of the fictional Sam obsessing over his Google hits. In this self-aware self-obsession, All the Sad Young Literary Men aligns itself with other chronicles of the would-be writer striving to make it, the most notable examples being Bright Lights, Big City and This Side of Paradise. Like Fitzgerald’s Amory Blaine and McInerney’s unnamed protagonist, they drink too much and work for too little at jobs that are wholly beneath them. College is the would-be writer’s formative experience; women remain foreign and poorly understood creatures. The book’s plot line is aped from the writer’s own life, and the final triumph of the narrator is visible in the book sitting in front of you: an eleven-ounce, one-inch-thick epilogue. While the fates of the fictional Mark, Sam and Keith might hang in the balance, the flesh-and-blood Keith seems to be doing just fine.

Click here to read another take on Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, reviewed by John Davidson

 

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