All the Sad, Young Literary Men
by Keith Gessen Available April 10, from Viking
Keith Gessen is a serious man. One of the founders of N+1, a smart, aggressive journal of art, literature and politics, he has rightly and eloquently lamented the impoverishment of intellectual discourse in 21st-century America, particularly in a New York literary scene that prefers whimsy to gravitas, adolescence to adulthood and typography to teleology. And if lit journal-cum-publishing house McSweeney’s has come to stand (albeit unfairly so) as shorthand for this particular style of whimsy-sotted, Brooklyn-born preciousness, then online media gossip Gawker has served as its natural enemy, employing snark and irony to interrupt the daydreams of thousands of Michel Gondrys and Miranda Julys.
But the sad trick of this snark/wonder binary is its shared terror of the serious. The former cannot show weakness for fear of being eaten by its children, the mocking commentariat; the latter, though able to take its own nostalgia seriously, does not want to grow up and deal with grown-up issues, as grown-ups do.
Lost in this Manichean food fight is the long and vital New York tradition of the public intellectual: from Irving Howe to Lionel Trilling to Susan Sontag, this city has taken itself, and its ideas, very seriously. And this is the tradition N+1 wants to be a part of — as Sontag herself said, in what could be a motto for Gessen and crew, “Be passionate, be serious, wake up.” So, despite the risk of mockery and the inevitable accusations of arrogance, they’ve sought to engage with the world beyond Brooklyn, fighting their generational predisposition to self-referential wonder and self-conscious snark. But when one of the characters in Gessen’s debut novel, All the Sad, Young Literary Men, asks himself, “Does he who fights douchebags become, inevitably, something of a douchebag?” one can’t help but respond, in this case, “yes.”
All the Sad, Young Literary Men has too many men, none of whom is particularly sad, literary or, for that matter, interesting. They read a lot, drive around the northeast, trudge through bleak college towns, go to disappointing parties, agonize over women, and, of course, they try to write. In three discrete narratives we meet Sam, who perpetually fails to produce the great Zionist novel and, in one of the book’s best sections, travels all the way to the West Bank to see for himself why it’s unwritable; Mark, a dreary divorcé toiling on his dissertation in Syracuse, trying to fuck the right women, sleeping with the wrong ones; and Keith, an Americanized Russian émigré (and Gessen proxy) who writes fiery liberal think pieces and lifts weights. Or maybe it’s Mark who lifts weights? Or is he the hockey player? — beyond the aforementioned playbill descriptions of Sam, Keith and Mark, there isn’t much to distinguish among them.
Nor does Gessen seem to care about creating any sense of place: the dark undertones of post-industrial Syracuse are identical in pitch to post-communist, outer-ring Moscow; Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Park Slope are essentially the same neighborhood, and seem here about as interesting as suburban Ottawa (again, only in the West Bank does Gessen invest in the writing, taking the time to situate his character in a living, breathing place). So, three indistinguishable, overeducated white men wander through indeterminate locations worrying about their prospects for intellectual greatness and meaningful sex, employing historical, geo-political analogies to ennoble their standard-issue insecurities. In one lamentably extended metaphor, Sam compares his romantic problems to Israel and Palestine: “What a woman! She wanted a final settlement, and if she did not have it, she would drive him into the sea.” And while “land for peace” is a notion most couples understand intuitively, the use of historic parallels to explicate emotional and romantic confusion cannot be sustained over an entire novel. If, as one character puts it toward the end of the book, “…historical parallels are of limited use in figuring out your personal life,” why do we, as readers, have to march through them for over 200 pages?
Of course, all this talk of romance and relationships suggests the existence of women characters, which is about as far as Mr. Gessen is willing to go while writing them — the mere suggestion of existence. We have ardent Israeli Talia and American lefty Arielle, twin foils for Sam’s internalized Zionist struggle; displaced Sasha, emblem of Mark’s lost innocence and fading potential, competing with successful, worldly Celeste, who in turn has to compete with golden-haired, 22-year-old Gwyn. Though these women serve mainly as blank walls for the projected insecurities and vanities of the three protagonists, two of them comprise the novel’s main either/or situation — its drama, so to speak. Should Mark commit to older, experienced Celeste, symbol of grown-up New York, pragmatic, sophisticated, a little cynical, a little crazy; or should he continue to fuck former student Gwyn, symbol of hope and the possibility of change?
Ultimately, Celeste is to be pitied because as a 29-year-old in Brooklyn, she’s facing “her last chance at something,” and “you [can] hold out against the calendar of the system for only so long.” The idea of a 29-year-old in Brooklyn sitting on the precipice of middle age is ridiculous, but I suppose it has a certain logical consistency considering the apparently redemptive power of beautiful young Gwyn and, more specifically, her beautiful young womb. (Seriously, her womb: In a really unfortunate conclusion, that has rightly been compared to a Judd Apatow treatment, we are supposed to accept the notion that having a baby with a gorgeous younger woman is how one arrives at hope and purpose for the future.)
And this leads to the big question about this book: Are these ideas about love and politics and late-capitalist despair those of the author’s, or is he satirizing a callow, self-involved generation of pointlessly overeducated young men? Is this book a mirror held up to society to show us who we are? A cautionary tale of apathy and squandered talent meant to scare us into action? The answer, I’m afraid, is unclear. And though I risk sounding like one of Gessen’s perpetually vacillating protagonists, I’d suggest it’s somewhere in between.
And that’s the problem. Sam, Keith and Mark all have problems with commitment — so too, does Keith Gessen. He is clearly a smart, driven, passionate man who has publicly committed to virtues we should all hold dear: intellectual honesty, rigorous discourse, engaged erudition and above all, taking things seriously — and for that I commend him. But in this particular work of fiction, I wish he’d shifted focus away from himself and his friends, away from all of us who wander around Brooklyn worried about our next publication or our friend’s enviable book deal. I wish he’d committed to something greater than himself.
As one of Gessen’s proxies tells us, “When you are young, what you want from people is that they tell you about you.” Well, as everyone in this book comes to realize, we’re not that young anymore, and we’re getting pretty tired of hearing about ourselves.