I MUST admit that I already disliked Keith Gessen before I read his first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men. While I waited for it to arrive, I read some reviews to see just what sort of author was coming in the mail.
Gessen happens to be the envied upper crust: undergrad at Harvard, grad school at Syracuse, Jewish immigrant from Russia. He’s nine years older than I am. In 2004 he founded the smart, snotty young literary review n+1. His reviews beat the snot out of mine; they are clever, erudite, and deftly mix blatant opinions with obscure literary references. The New York Times loves Keith Gessen. I think he’s a highbrow jerk.
So I opened his book with a chip on my shoulder. All the Sad Young Literary Men is an underdog’s tale, and, from my worm’s view of life, anyone with the kind of connections, money, or intelligence to attend Harvard and Syracuse is automatically excluded from the Underdog Club.
But from the beginning, I had to admit, perhaps grudgingly, that Gessen is a captivating writer. His approach is stylish if not unique; he writes nine chapters and a prologue about three men whose individual lives intersect nowhere but on the periphery, reminiscent of Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. His cerebral description of man’s struggle against idealism resembles Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
Someone asked me about the plot. There isn’t one. Literary Men steps into three lives, watches them passively, and steps back out with only slightly abated passivity. Mark, the Syracuse grad student, divorces his Russian émigré wife for the ideal woman he never finds. Keith is the oddball Harvard undergrad who takes school seriously and worries about his Russian émigré family; his chapters speak in first person. Sam, with a nondescript education, lands a book deal to write the definitive Zionist epic, but he never finishes the manuscript. All three men love and lose the same lonely women, at different stages.
The essayist Gessen never really flowers into a novelist. Dialogue, though clever, often plays like rhetorical monologue. Gessen’s best writing describes Mark’s lonely agony after the divorce; his heartbreak scrapes the edge of true authorial vulnerability:
“It was a little over a year since Sasha left. Or maybe he had asked her to. Or perhaps they’d decided it together. It was a little hard to piece together now. In any case, why’d they do it? They loved one another, were true to one another, even after moving up from New York they’d had a nice time together, more or less, driving to Skaneateles, going to bookstores, camping in the national parks. But his dissertation was taking too long, and really Syracuse was killing them.”
But even at this, arguably the most open paragraph in his book, Gessen never relaxes, never lets the reader in. His characters’ most intimate thoughts—always regarding broken relationships—keep a closed door to the real human underneath. Loneliness, yes, but oversexed loneliness: there is always another woman. Pain, yes, but meaningless pain: there is always Tylenol.
And that is where Gessen’s characters miss the point. Underdogs don’t always come back out to a Rocky success. Usually, they lose. They lose hope, lose heart, lose their ideals and find solace in mediocrity or failure. Not Gessen’s Musketeers. Sam, presented as the biggest failure, winds up having to pay back his book advance—so he slips into a well-paid, mindless job, saves some money, and then he’s off to Israel for a month, looking for Israeli tanks in Palestine. When he finally sees one, his friend chucks a rock at it, and Sam’s Orwellian epiphany descends.
“Sam couldn’t help but laugh and laugh and laugh, even as he ran. There was no going back now, even though he’d go back tomorrow, even though he’d spend the weekend on the beach in Tel Aviv. Now, at long last, his arms pumping at his sides, the tank still firing madly behind them, his chest heaving, he knew. The Palestinians were idiots. But the Israelis—well, the Israelis were f—ers. And when Sam saw an idiot faced with his natural enemy, the f—er, he knew whose side he was on.”
Trite. After spending a book building up an appreciation for the Palestinian paradox, Gessen tosses aside balanced thought for emotional self-discoveries. Sam will never write his epic, but that’s his choice. Another point missed: underdogs don’t always get to choose, don’t get to keep control. In Gessen’s world, everyone keeps their control in the cupboard next to their hope—control of everything except, of course, love, which ends pathetically whenever lovers’ interests or careers conflict. Sam’s Palestinian epiphany chased the heels of an emailed breakup.
Keith, the undergrad, remains the least-known of the sad young men, despite approaching the reader from the first-person. Part of this stems from the relative lack of heartbreak in Keith’s life: his saddest moment watches Al Gore walk away from him in New York City, believing the man ought to have been President. Sad in its way, but for most of us, politics tugs fewer heartstrings than romance.
Ultimately, Gessen’s sad young literary men are the sort of people who judge libraries but never read books. Their monochromatic hearts break, but they never really love—never put her interests above their own. They lose arguments, but never learn. They live in an uncreated, unquestionably godless world. And they are young, but full only of youth’s foolishness, not its joy or energy, and they feel despairingly older. If Gessen intends to paint a portrait of his generation, pray his book is nothing more than a comical caricature.
And yet—and yet—I, too, am a graduate student. I, too, have felt the exhaustion and disillusion of half-heartedly growing up as an academic. Resent it as I do, Gessen’s book resonates somewhere with me. I disagree with his politics, I dislike his arrogance, I blanch at his presentation of underdogs. He celebrates victimization in an awful way. But these are elements of our culture, and I feel them too, even from an opposing end of our cultural spectrum.
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