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John Davidson 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
(Viking)

Reviewed by John Davidson

Why do publishers insist on labeling works of fiction? By now, isn’t it reasonable to assume a level of sophistication amongst readers, an understanding that if we’ve managed to tear ourselves away from text messages long enough to focus on an actual book, then we might yet be able to distinguish, say, "A Novel" from "Stories"? There’s something vaguely insulting about it, as if we’re too stupid to tell the difference. And yet…

All the Sad Young Literary Men, Keith Gessen’s recently published first book, is subheaded "Fiction". In this instance the publishers may have it right, since the book is not, as some critics have claimed, a collection of stories. And it isn’t, as an even greater number have suggested, a novel. It’s something of a hybrid, a series of extended riffs that appear to have been cobbled together for wont of a fully realized novelistic structure. If this sounds like a knock on the author’s architectural instincts, then it probably is. Still, if the book’s overall design lacks clarity, the many pleasures it affords do not.

Gessen is a founding editor of the highbrow n+1, a Brooklyn-based journal of art and politics that may be more widely praised than read. Through his renown as a cultural commentator and as translator of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Voices from Chernobyl, he has managed to create a hefty degree of expectation before his first book even saw print. In this debut collection he displays considerable gifts and even more promise, yet the work also turns out to be surprisingly tentative. It suggests that Gessen might be in the minority within the confines of New York publishing in not trusting his own hype.

The narratives collected here revolve around three protagonists. Mark is a graduate student of Russian history recovering from the fallout of a broken marriage and is seeking solace in the desolation of cyberspace; Keith, a recent graduate of Harvard, is a political correspondent nurturing intellectual aspirations à la Edmund Wilson, but already discovering the workings of the intellectual elite to be more cynical and bewildering than expected; and Sam, a writer struggling with his commitment to write "The Great Zionist Epic" while also obsessing over his plummeting Google Index and failed relationships with women.

On the evidence of this book, girls are the thorn in this boy’s side. For Gessen’s men, women serve as both the keenest necessity and the greatest distraction from Serious Work. The women who populate these stories are all of a type: bright, city-slick college grads with tidy figures and short dark hair. They are painted in broad strokes, and their existence here is primarily as the focus of the lusts and emotional needs of the stories protagonists. Indeed, both author and protagonists appear caught in an unresolved push-and-pull between an intellectual obligation to the world of ideas, and the more primal matters of the heart. If the book feels tentative, it may be because Gessen questions his own material and wonders whether the romantic tribulations of young men are unworthy of a man of ideas.

A knowing irony of this shows itself in the book’s title, an allusion to a story collection by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s early work was ostensibly about little else but the romantic travails of young men and women, with one of his more regularly anthologized stories revolving around nothing deeper or more profound than a girl cutting her hair. If Gessen wants to question where the greater weight in our lives exists, in sex or politics, then he might consider putting a call in to Eliot Spitzer.

But the book’s themes (or some of them, at least) are not the only tip of the hat in Fitzgerald’s direction. Many of the book’s pleasures are found in the assured elegance of a prose style that is at once formal and elegiac, that aspires to the manner of Fitzgerald and also to John Cheever.

"When you are twenty, and twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, you watch the world for the way it watches you. Do people laugh when you make a joke, do they kiss you when you lean into them at a party? Yes? Aha — so that’s who you are."

One thinks of Fitzgerald’s great invocation of New York:

"The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world."

And here is Gessen, traversing the same route:

"It remains the most dramatic way to enter the city: one second you are in the grimiest section of Queens, where they drop off prisoners from Rikers, and the next second you are told that a left will get you FDR Drive, but a right, my friend, a right will put you on 61st and First. And that’s where I found a place, 61st and First."

On the book’s back cover, a log-rolling blurb from Benjamin Kunkel (Gessen’s fellow n+1 founder) awkwardly describes the prose as having an "almost classical or Fitzgeraldian excellence." Kunkel also notes of the book, "I recognize our lives in it," which, given the book’s strongly autobiographical roots, makes of it an easy target for n+1 snipers.

In spite of which, the elegiac tone is a little more problematic, since there is little sense of anyone having suffered through anything worse than dull college towns and trouble with girls. There is the failure of the Democratic Party to gain electoral power in 2000 and 2004 which, granted, was unquestionably a bummer. And in the sections of the book centered upon the character of Sam, Gessen engages political history through the troubles in Israel and the occupied territories. In Jenin, Sam makes his way out to Jerusalem and stays with his cousin Witold in an attempt to comprehend the situation firsthand. It’s primarily a piece of reportage, but in making of it a story, women remain a significant part of the motivational force:

"Was it lame and pathetic on Sam’s part to have fled romantic disaster so he could sort out his feelings about the Occupation? Was it lame and pathetic and even farcical? Maybe. Yeah."

Both Fitzgerald and Cheever were writing the experience of generations altered by world war. History had placed them in the thick of things. Lives and fortunes had been lost, and faith in the future had been shaken — all of which was reflected, either directly or indirectly, in the stories they wrote. For now, however, Mark, Keith and Sam remain on the outside of history waiting to get in, their faces pressed against the glass. While it may be representative of a feeling harbored by many of their generation, in these stories it is felt more through a lack of will or design than by intent or by conscious force.

There are first books from authors you never expect to hear from again, and then there are others that you read with the knowledge that they are harbingers of bigger things. Despite these small flaws, and by way of various pleasures, Gessen’s book reads like the latter. It may be a first foray, but you don’t doubt the intelligence, nor question the fine style. If there are typical traits of a first novel here — extended lists of books and authors and influences, unnecessary and distracting photographs interspersed with the text — then the reading experience is always smooth and pleasurable.

In part, it may simply be that this was the book Gessen had to write to be rid of a backlog of personal history. Of course, Fitzgerald never stopped mining his own personal history. But he also never questioned the importance of his experience, or of what he had to say. His stories resonate with us still because he created truth in fiction. Gessen has created small worlds here, and one expects larger worlds to open up once he learns to trust and integrate his deepest gut and intellectual instincts.

 

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

 

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